What makes us take up causes others think are impossible?

What draws others to the cause, bonds us together, and gives us an inexhaustible energy and an unwavering belief that we’ll succeed? I started Champions of the Lost Causes to foster a dialog about the successes, setbacks and team dynamics that move causes forward. I’ll share what I’ve learned through my cause, but I am also here to learn.

This is about what drives us Champions, but it’s also a forum about real projects. It’s about your beloved park, your shuttered building, your polluted river. It’s about your child’s struggling school, your growing local food system, your gerrymandered voting district. 

You’ve got a team of Champions assembled and are hard at work. You are strong, passionate and committed to your project and each other. Now, you’ve got a community of Champions cut from the same cloth who are rooting you on and sharing ideas and hard-fought wisdom from the trenches. 

Together, we will be even stronger.

The air support of public opinion

Just as “trust but verify,” is important in the day-in-day-out hand-to-hand combat of moving forward, an equally important tool in your arsenal as you fight the incremental war of the lost cause is to “keep them honest.”

Your main ally in this is the media… and social media. To keep with the war analogy, media and social media are the “air support”, the bombardment that can have a big impact and often reset the battle lines.

If you’re not “out there” in the media with your positive vision of your project, Joe and Jane Everyone can’t follow along. If too much time passes without an update, they lose the thread or revert to some previous understanding of the issue. The opposition can drive its own news, too, and their version of it will never be as sympathetic to your version of what’s possible than yours. It will never be as compelling either, and that is a continuous advantage you will have.

The good news is Champions of lost causes are more nimble and agile than the people on the other side, who often have to get their messages passed up the chain of command or okay-ed by the mayor or their corporate lawyer. This watering-down process makes their messages way less compelling than yours. This makes it all the more important to be able to convey a positive version of the story at every phase.

Focus on the progress made. Again, use conflict very sparingly… as a last resort… especially in the later phases.

  • Issue a press release at a key juncture.
  • Go on a morning talk show and have your spokesman make the case succinctly.

    The best person for this PR assignment is often the diplomat, because they have in their heart the more optimistic, generous version of the story and what’s hoped for, and they can look past the small, grievances to paint a prettier, optimistic picture using bullet points. The viewer gets a quick update and is left with the thought Well, that’s great! looks like people are working together and making progress.

    If this makes the other side a little uneasy, that’s good. It should. They need to see that you have a direct connection to the people and that you can sway public opinion. They need the public on their side (for a given issue or for reelection).

    It is a reminder that they need you on their side and that your group can’t be taken for granted. They have to occasionally be caught off-guard by your use of media. You do it in a way that leaves them no choice but to like and appreciate you, because you give them nothing to attack… it’s all positive and couched in gratitude for them. How can they have any issue with it? Your version is different enough that they’ll see where they are not in alignment. It will concern them. This will tee up additional meetings, where you’ll find more common ground, build more rapport etc.

    Without the occasional counterweight of media to “keep them honest,” they’ll revert to their default, which is working on all the issues themselves and in concert with the “hidden stakeholders” who either avoid you or are cagey around you, and who want to conduct their business privately, and with the people they consider the traditional power brokers.

Gentle Controversy

There is power is controversy.

As activists, controversy is powerful wind in our sails, and any drama needs conflict as an animating element.

But too much conflict and people tune out, and you need people to stay engaged.

Any mass movement needs to leverage public opinion to sway elected officials, drive the news cycle and generally show people why, exactly, the cause has direct importance on their lives or the lives of those they care about. Many causes we Champions take up have an enemy: a seemingly immovable public official, a policy or statute we want changed.

You’ll feel the temptation to rail against what is holding back progress, but be careful how you respond to the call of the nemesis. At the outset, you have to make the case for change being necessary, and that may mean standing in opposition to powerful people and their plans.

Do it with respect.

Discipline yourself to treat these people with the respect of their offices, regardless of whether you think they deserve it or are acting in good faith in carrying out their duties. Why? Because it makes your cause more sympathetic.

But more important, treating the other guy or bad policy with a degree of restraint it makes you harder to dismiss, both by the person in opposition and by the people who thinks that person is right or “a good guy.”

The diplomat and the skeptic

Among your group, you will likely find a diplomat… a diplomatic person. That is always my role, and you need people like me. As a glass-overflowing optimist, I can easily believe the best in a person. I can get along with the Devil himself. The diplomat is the person who should be in most frequent contact with the opposing side and especially the arch nemesis, if you truly have one.

If you’re the hardened skeptic of the group, it may frustrate you that the diplomat can see the good in people who seem shady to you. That’s okay. You need the diplomat to relate to them, bring back helpful intel that wouldn’t be shared with your group otherwise, and give the opposition the sense that you are reasonable people. It may even give the opposition the sense that they have you fooled, placated, out of the way. This creates a false sense of security, which can make them vulnerable. You can exploit this. They think they have you fooled, but the joke is on them. The skeptic is the unseen counterweight they weren’t expecting, and that person’s interrogation of the facts and resulting tactics can hit the opposition in the gut when they’ve let their guard down.

The power comes in the duality… the coupling of the skeptic and the diplomat. Every leadership team needs one of each. Both have long-game optimism about ultimate success, but each analyzes and interrogates new information differently.

Together, your group’s view is stereoscopic. The differing views are the two eyes that combine to give you depth perception. The diplomat can “hang in there” with terrible people and believe that what they’re saying might be true. Diplomats can be gullible at just the right time. Sometimes what you’re being told, you learn later on, was true, although seemingly untrue to the skeptic at the time. The diplomat convinces the skeptic and possibly others in the group who are skeptical to “hold out hope” that the promised collaboration or next step might truly be in the offing. The skeptic is very important, too. He or she is less trusting and, to satisfy their skeptical curiosity, they will dig through public records, engage a city council person to get another take etc. They often bring back troubling contrary information that you’ll have to deal with, but they often corroborate what the diplomat was told and, only then, accept it. If you did not have the diplomat to “hold out hope” and “give people the benefit of the doubt” and “hang in there” while the slow gears of change move, your group would interrogate everything to death and become convinced that the “fix is in.” The fix is never in. Even when it is, it isn’t. Giving in to this way of thinking is defeatist and must be resisted. It is dis-empowering and leads nowhere. The “powers that be” are rarely the conspiratorial, cohesive, malevolent unit that we imagine. They are individuals with agendas, and like most everyone, they are a mix of good and bad qualities. Even truly bad people have good in them and can be motivated to act in accordance with your vision. And you can play off even people’s selfish motives and create change. What matters most is staying at it and remaining hopeful, as a unit. The fix is never in. Your efforts are never hopeless. Hold out hope that you are making progress. If one front seems immovable at any given time, make progress where you can. Keep moving. You have legs the other side does not have. Your cause is more powerful than their selfishness, self-interest and petty, lazy plans built on conventional assumptions and traditional power arrangements. Yes, those systems and players have power, but they are slow-footed and cumbersome. They are used to having their way with minimal effort. They are not fleet of foot like you and your group of Champions. You will work circles around them. They won’t know what hit them. They will have no answer for your implacable commitment and relentless, plucky idealism. In time, many of those forces will be converted. You will win many of them over. Then the staid actors become your allies. At the end of the day, they just want a win, and with the arch enemy long ago vanquished, and in the absence of any good reason to not get on board, they will, and your effort will gain steam, gain allies, and the conversation rate will accelerate. This is the beginning of the home stretch. But be careful. There can and will be setbacks, and you may find that your effort has a whole second half. You thought you were closing out the game, but you find you are only at halftime. Don’t be discouraged. Take heart in knowing that the new theater of work and activity wouldn’t have even been possible if you hadn’t “left it all on the field” in the first half. You are winning.

So, if not in direct, obvious conflict, how to agitate effectively while remaining at the table as one who, in the main, remains optimistic about where things are headed? What people want to see – Joe and Jane Everybody following along strictly by what they read in the news – is progress. Conflict at the outset (waged with respect) is necessary, but people want to see it channeled into healthy, productive change, and ultimately, they want to see “both sides” working together. That has to be the narrative, even if in the background there are all sorts of missteps, lack of agreement, and arguing.

The X-Factor

Why the exact right people show up right on time is a mystery to me, but it is nonetheless true.

As a person of faith, I think God calls each member, but it is also through the personal mechanism of meaning specific to each person. In a sense, the particular person sees a specific way he or she can contribute, I suppose. Somewhere between or among these logical and mystical explanations is the truth. I am sure they all contribute. Compare it to the body and how it all works together. We are more than the chemicals and organs and mix of blood and tissue. There is a spirit to each of us and an uber-spirit of sorts of the group.

Beyond pure reason lies an X factor… an alchemical magic mix of motivation, love, challenge and determination. The X factor yokes the group together with a seemingly unbreakable bond… to the stated cause, but also to each other.

They cannot fail.

They will not fail.

They have come too far to turn back now. They will not accept anything but success.

Champions suit up to play

Why do we order off the menu?

Why aren’t pre-ordained roles that support good causes satisfying enough?

Maybe it’s the social entrepreneurial streak that makes us seek out a fresh, unaddressed cause.

Serving on boards can be rewarding, and you can learn a lot and be connected to collaborators and allies for other work, but I think it’s the structure of it that seems limiting. You’re formed into a team or task force for a specific purpose, and it has been defined by others. That doesn’t make it not worth doing, but it is, by nature, less interesting. It’s also usually about incrementality. How can we make this a little better? How can we increase membership? How can we evaluate these grant proposals and award them by how they fit the application guidelines? Again, nothing wrong with it, but the pace is too slow for a Champion. I’m glad that work is going on. I’m happy to describe it and its merits… you know, root it on… but I don’t want to do it. Maybe that’s my own personal aversion to work like that, because detail work… slowly building the case through research, stats, graphs etc. IS important. 

Maybe we seek out a fresh, unaddressed cause because we’ve got more to give, and nothing in our work life, home life or even a traditional civic life (Rotary etc.) is able to scratch the itch. A curmudgeonly pessimistic colleague of mine often says, dismissively and half joking after listening to one of my project updates, “You care so much,” and he’ll roll his eyes and smile.

He’s right. I do care, but that’s not all that animates a Champion. And it’s not merely a social entrepreneur’s moxie and creative daring either.

It’s something more.

It’s all that plus a desire to do something novel… and to show the world that nothing is impossible. Bundled in with altruism and that desire to take something as far as you can take it, is a feeling akin to rooting for an underdog, and I mean a real 16th seed in the NCAA tournament type of underdog. More than root for the team, we suit up to play. Then we find similarly wired teammates. Once the team is assembled, what you find is a team of undervalued, overlooked players with hidden strengths no one else saw. Their camaraderie and shared desire brings out the best in everyone. All of a sudden the wins start piling up and the team starts to believe in itself. You may be proving to others that your lost cause is not lost, but you’re also proving to yourself and others that you have a deep well of ability that the world never recognized. You’ve got several additional gears… unused muscles… and you’ve just got to use them before they rust, flex them and build them while there’s still time. A Champion is, essentially, a frustrated leader who, finding no opportunity in his or her life being offered otherwise, sets out to find an opportunity to live out their life as a leader more fully.

They are built of rugged stuff… self confidence wed to smarts and ingenuity… all made tougher still by the camaraderie of the teammates also in a quest to live out an unlived part of their lives… other people intent on doing what they were put on this planet to do.

The lost causes aren’t lost.

Your lost cause isn’t lost.

I mean, you found it, right?

And you often find other Champions have arrived on the scene at the same time… equally bewildered that no one is already tackling the issue. Something made you and those first allies HAVE to pick up this assignment, and that THING, is the same thing that won’t let you let it go.

And most lost causes aren’t lost because they can’t be seen. Most of these causes have been found before, perhaps thousands of times, but they have been left to sit there.

It’s not lost because it can’t be seen. Everyone sees it, but it’s seen as too hard to tackle. What is it about small groups who, when they find their lost cause, are unable to let it sit there unaddressed? What makes people like us tick? And once they make the cause theirs, what is the fuel that keeps them going? One “job opening” becomes many and, all of a sudden, the “applications” come pouring in. One person, or a band of two or three rally around the cause… they find it, point to it and name it, and they coalesce a set of founding ideas about addressing it. Then others, seeing a baseline of investment, put their hands on the pile.

Soon, there is a functional workgroup assembled, but it is unlike a typical workplace team in that everyone’s motivation is the cause and not pay. There are no performance reviews or metrics of accountability. They aren’t necessary. Love of the cause is the glue, and it is the strongest glue. People in this workgroup also promote themselves, demote themselves and fire themselves in a fluid way that keeps the core group strong, focused and with fresh legs. This gives the group a nimbleness that gives them the edge in dealing with flat-footed government, and that is true always, but especially if the relationship is adversarial. The people in government, after all, have regular jobs, with the ordinary motivators. They don’t run on the same special Champions fuel… a potent mixture of relentless passion, creativity and plucky resolve.

By being told what we want is impossible, the best of us comes out, because we refuse to believe it.

We believe in our cause that much.

We cannot be convinced that we are doomed to fail. We know better.

We are getting our cues from our higher, nobler, aspirational selves, and our conviction is bulletproof and inviolable.

Forming Voltron

What makes a group of Champions materialize out of the ether, mysteriously fully formed as a unit?

A group of Champions has its own strengths, member to member, but what is it that makes them come together to “form Voltron” and be an uber-Champion capable of superhuman things?

Why are the gifts so perfectly aligned?

It’s not just a diversity of complementary gifts…it’s the X factor.

One plus one plus one equals 20. One person’s enthusiasm or success on a given front or on a given day lifts up and emboldens the rest of the team. The activity of one spells the others so that, collectively, the “legs” of the group remain fresh. It’s a multiplication of loaves-type miracle of sorts, if you will.

Yes, the issue animates us, but so does the good feeling of being part of a team striving for something worth our collective best effort. It brings out the best in us. There is energy also in the discoveries along the way, especially at the outset, like your ship has landed on an unmarked island. What might we find?! Being tired almost doesn’t exist, especially not in those heady early days. Even later on, the project continues to open up… continues to reveal new plot twists that are irresistible. It’s like a great page turner of a novel you can’t put down, but it’s even better, because you and your friends are principal characters in a choose your own adventure book. More than curiosity about what will happen to an interesting fictitious character… what will happen to these people I have grown to love and admire, and how will it change me and my community!?

THAT is exciting and supremely compelling.

THAT is a drama that is impossible to let go, and when you have “formed Voltron” from a team of dedicated and zealous “cats” who are motivated to give their best efforts, look out! Nothing can stop them! Nothing will stand in their way that they can’t endure, figure out or eviscerate… that they can’t eat for breakfast!

What is a Champion of a Lost Cause?

One day, I started thinking about the opportunity to take a leadership role in a civic movement in terms of it being a job opening.

And I don’t mean serving on a board or committee for an established nonprofit, as worthwhile as that is.

I mean, a cause no one is addressing. It’s a job, just waiting to be filled, but the posting is hidden, and the rules of engagement are ours to make up as we go.

What would you call that job?

My first articulation of this concept was “the CEO of the thing everyone knows needs to be done but no one is doing.”

That was too long, I thought, and besides, not everyone is the CEO. I realized I needed a catch-all, generic word that would stand in for CEO, CFO, bookkeeper, sergeant at arms (and you need every one of these people.)

Then one day, in the shower, the title “Champions of the Lost Cause” came to me. About a month later, I changed it to “Champions of the Lost Causes.” The plural, causes, fits better to build a community of Champions. They’re working on many different worthwhile causes, and the point is to get at the commonalities…not only the common core strengths and values, but also the common challenges and ideas to address them and be more successful.