Dreams Can Be Dangerous


Read more at chipfilson.com

After the Gettysburg Address, the most memorized speech in high school is Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech.

Dreams drive human aspiration. They inspire political and social movements. America is a land built on the hopes of a better life by the millions seeking this land of opportunity.

Many credit union purpose statements include the goal of helping members achieve their dreams. At their best, cooperatives nurture communities that uplift each other.

Dream bigger

Dreams also become entwined with human ambition. In a competitive market-driven economy, it is inevitable that some will be captured by the impulse to grow and dominate.

Patient organic increase, member by member, is not fast enough. I have described examples of PenFed’s over two dozen mergers of successful, long-serving credit unions that have nothing to do with its prior market or roots. These mergers are incentivized with staff payouts followed by layoffs and ultimately the ending of local presence in exchange for virtual, digital service.

GreenState in Iowa is one of the highest-performing credit unions in the country. But that record was not enough. They have pursued three or four whole bank purchases outside their home state to achieve even faster growth. It is no accident that when the economy turned and the real estate markets and rise in rates created headwinds, these were two of the first institutions to announce staff layoffs.

Sometimes dreams come at the expense of others. At some point, ambition distorts dreams. Survival dominates decisions.

New personalities and new tactics

Chasing dreams of a bigger, commanding future has resulted in some leaders overlooking the incredible success that was right in front of them. That oversight is the danger every CEO and board will face.

The risk of this loss of perspective about the value of what has been created can be acute with new leaders. The push and pull between past success and future direction can be traumatic. One observer has described this tension as follows:

“One side says do MORE – more TACTICS, for MORE people, for MORE communities, etc.

“One side says do the same.

“Now doing the same is more – more of the right things, for right reasons, and for the right people. But it sounds like less – people, especially people not vested in the “right” things intuitively chose more, new, often along the lines of the competition.

“Professionals are easily swayed toward competitive calculations based on just MORE and peer trends and ideas that serve professionals.

“Therefore cooperatives are a niche easily outgrown and defeated as missions wane, as purpose grays, retires and dreams end.”

Keeping dreams alive

Examples of both positions are abundant in credit unions today. The test of any system, especially one that claims to be democratic, is whether we can discuss what troubles us. The founding generations will continue to move on with their dreams.

Cooperative success is more than management tactics. The good news is that it only takes a few leaders dedicated to this unique approach to member well-being to preserve the ideals, not just the balance sheets, they inherited.


  • Chip Filson

    A nationally recognized leader in the credit union industry, Filson is an astute author, frequent speaker, and consultant for the credit union movement. He has more than 40 years of experience in government, financial institutions, and business. Chip co-founded Callahan and Associates. Filson has held concurrent positions at the NCUA as president of the Central Liquidity Facility and Director of the Office of Programs, which includes the NCUSIF and the examination process. He holds a magna cum laude undergraduate degree in government from Harvard University. After being awarded a Rhodes Scholarship, he earned a master’s degree in politics, philosophy, and economics from Oxford University in England. He also holds an MBA in management from Northwestern University’s Kellogg School in Chicago.

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