The structure and phase transformation of a cobalt (Co) catalyst, during single walled carbon nanotube (SWCNT) growth, is elucidated for inactive, active and deactivated nanoparticles by in situ imaging using an environmental transmission electron microscope. During nanotube growth, the structure was analyzed using Miller indices to determine the types of planes that favor anchoring or liftoff of nanotubes from the Co catalyst. Density functional theory was further applied to model the catalyst interactions to compare the work of adhesion of the catalyst's faceted planes to understand the interactions of different Miller planes with the graphene structure. Through in-depth studies of multiple distinct Co nanoparticles, we established a dominant nanoparticle phase for SWCNT growth. In addition, we identified the preferred lattice planes and a threshold for work of adhesion to allow the anchoring and liftoff of SWCNTs.