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Five Things I Learned at Catalyst

Last week, the annual Catalyst conference was held in Atlanta, GA. I spoke at the Pre-Lab on “Overcoming Artificial Maturity.” On Thursday and Friday, 13,000 leaders filled the Gwinnett Arena for an experience they’ll never forget.

I have attended and/or spoken at these Catalyst conferences since their beginning in 2000. This year was spectacular and I’d like to share with you five truths I learned from the sessions.

1. The more successful you are, as a leader, the less accessible you’ll be to people. It’s just simple math—the leader cannot touch everyone he or she leads in a large organization. The fact is, leaders can use this success to excuse being inaccessible to anyone. We hide behind busyness. The solution: Do for one what you wish you could do for everyone. (Andy Stanley)

2. When you’re willing to leave your comfort zone, as a leader, you’re more apt to find the end zone of what you’re really seeking.  In other words, often our routines that maintain familiarity and ease get in the way of achieving our goals. Assuming risks can jar us back into the person and the organization we intended to be in the first place. (Francis Chan)

3. Leaders who are “great by choice” practice three principles in order to achieve what they have. These were all modeled by the 1911 trek through Antarctica, by two teams led by Robert F. Scott and Roald Amundsen. Amundsen beat Scott to the South Pole by practicing the big three:

a.  Ruthless Discipline – Amundsen decided to walk 17-20 miles a day, come wind or snow. No more. No less. We must find our 20 miles a day—and do it, regardless of how hard or easy.

b.  Empirical Creativity – These leaders don’t look around to merely see what others are doing and copy it; they look at hard data and say: what’s the best way to attack this challenge?

c. Productive Paranoia – These leaders understand you must be prepared for what you can’t predict. They channel anxiety into productive action and reduce probability of failure.  (Jim Collins)

4. Fire bullets before you fire cannonballs. Years ago, Navies would get within firing range of their target—an enemy ship—and they would fire bullets until they hit the target. Then and only then, would they fire cannonball, which were far more rare and expensive. In the same way, leaders must explore new, creative ideas, then try them in small places before launching with a large and expensive campaign. (Jim Colins)

5. Leaders are learners and learners are leaders. Every time I attend Catalyst I am reminded of the fact that if I want to continue leading, I must continue learning. I’m so thankful for events like Catalyst that bring together such an incredible group of speakers. Getting exposed to such a wide range of ideas in the course of just a few days is challenging and extremely valuable.

Anyone else attend Catalyst and learn something new? Feel free to share. See you all next year at the Catalyst conference on October 3-5, 2012.



  1. Rob T on October 10, 2011 at 7:37 am

    wow, yea, so many good ones.  thanks for the list.  I was thinking about the need to scrap “fairness” (andy stanley…or was it randy?)

    • Tim Elmore on October 11, 2011 at 11:25 pm

      Yes, that was a challenging idea!

  2. ChristianScott on October 10, 2011 at 7:50 am

    I love Andy Stanley’s concept of symbolic leadership, do for one what you wish you could do for everyone.

    • Tim Elmore on October 11, 2011 at 11:26 pm

      That is a great, memorable takeaway. I’d be curious to hear how people apply that – I’m sure there are some great stories out there!

  3. Anthony on October 10, 2011 at 3:19 pm

    Great succinct summaries of key learnings, thank you.
    I made full notes of keynotes at 

    • Tim Elmore on October 11, 2011 at 11:28 pm

      Thanks for passing that along, Anthony. Great notes at your site!

  4. Rustincomer on October 10, 2011 at 3:49 pm

    I also loved Colins, metaphor of the bus.  The question is not where your bus is going but who is on your bus and are they filling the right seats.  Once the right seats are filled with the right people then you can determine the destination.  Powerful metaphor.  The other key point of Great by choice was that Great leaders are value driven. 

    • Tim Elmore on October 11, 2011 at 11:29 pm

      Great points – thanks for sharing them. The bus metaphor is a powerful reminder!

  5. Micheal on October 10, 2011 at 3:59 pm

    Thanks Tim. I too was struck by the thought that “Leaders are learners and learners are leaders.” I was sitting on the floor of the arena near the end and this truth hit me over the head again. Thanks for your notes and reminders. Can’t wait to listen to you lab session. Thanks! 

    • Tim Elmore on October 11, 2011 at 11:30 pm

      Thanks for taking time to comment, Michael. We’ll keep on learning!

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Five Things I Learned at Catalyst