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.


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.

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.