After a rewarding experience as Leader in Residence at the Atlantic Institute, I am thrilled to have recently launched The Catalyst’s Way – A Handbook for People Who Want to Change the World and, as a companion guide, The Catalyst’s Way – Foundational Storytellers at Oxford University.
Defining a Catalyst
As I discuss in the book, a catalyst is someone who causes change to happen. This meaning derives from the Greek root “kata,” meaning “down” and “lyein,” meaning “loosen.” Together these form the word “katalyein,” meaning “to dissolve” and “katalytikos,” “able to dissolve.” Action and capability come together in a synergistic way. Catalysts, as suggested by the term katalytikos, need to be able to effect change. A catalyst works to pull down and dissolve systems that perpetuate inequity and injustice.
Catalysts don’t only dismantle systems of oppression; they also raise (k)new ones. Spelling (k)new in this way refers to knowledge that may be presented as new for some people but is already known by others, e.g., Indigenous wisdom apropos collective leadership or sustainability. The term (k)new in the context of catalysis is an alchemy of ancient wisdom traditions and new knowledge that rises generatively.
Another meaning of the word “catalyst” is an alchemist who ignites a powerful exchange. When chemist Elizabeth Fulhame first used the term “catalysis” in her experiments in the late 1700s, she brought this new connotation (Brazil, 2022). Applying this to change agency, Ricardo Morse (2010, p. 233), in his work on collaborations, describes an effective catalyst as someone who has the courage and conviction to intervene, have an impact, reduce or remove barriers to change, and be an integrator.