He Made Us All Better — Even Still Today

Callahan & Associates co-founder leaves a legacy larger than the sum of his considerable accomplishments. This is an ideal time to remember the Irishman's defense of leadership for the greater good.

 
 

Growing up in small Midwestern towns (Divernon and Sidney, IL, and Rensselaer, IN) meant that my exposure to diverse cultural experiences was limited. It was not until I joined with Ed Callahan and Bucky Sebastian at the Department of Financial Institutions that I experienced Irish pride. And the importance of St Patrick’s Day.

In fact, Ed was so fundamentally Irish that he waited to pass only until after all the bars had closed on St. Patrick’s Day in 2009 — one final celebration to send him on. His Irish roots ran deep, and this could be seen in his personality and in how he interacted with friends and colleagues. 

Ed has left us with a legacy and a lesson about leadership. Now, perhaps more than ever in recent years, we need to reflect on the importance of great leadership and how to build on what we’ve learned from those who have provided it to us along the way. Certainly, Ed Callahan was one of those.

It’s no accident that two Irishmen (Ronald Reagan and Don Regan) chose a third to be chairman of the NCUA in 1981. The Irish love camaraderie and prize loyalty. One answer Ed reportedly gave to Treasury Secretary Regan’s question of why he wanted to move to DC to be NCUA chair was “because I want to have fun.” Only another Irishman would understand that life perspective. 

Ed embraced the credit union movement’s challenges and all life’s moments at full throttle. Jim Blaine best described his leadership in this way when he wrote

Some said that Ed was a visionary, they were wrong. Ed Callahan was a revolutionary.

Visionaries talk about change, revolutionaries take you there. Ed led from the front — a leader of conviction rather than convenience; principles above posture; courageous.

Revolutionaries, by definition, create problems; overturn apple carts; rebuke the status quo. 

Greater Than Individual Achievement

Ed was much more than his personal accomplishments. Whether as a teacher, coach, high school principal, or chief executive, he understood his role was to help everyone around him to “do and be better.” 

In my life I’ve been fortunate enough to have experienced firsthand this talent to help others achieve. My first such experience was one of the several times I had the chance to play on the same basketball team as Bill Bradley, the Princeton All-American, subsequent NBA champion with the NY Knicks, and then a U.S. senator from New Jersey.

The Oxford team was challenged to play a visiting semi-professional squad sponsored by Gulf Oil company. The team was composed of U.S. post-collegiate, paid players, not quite good enough for the NBA. Because of Bradley’s basketball reputation in Europe, the game was at the Royal Albert Hall, London, during the Christmas break from school. Even in soccer-loving England, the game was almost a sellout. 

Some of our team members were gone, so I started, played the whole game and was second, only to Bill in total points. That was not my normal game performance. I had experienced what everyone knows instinctively, that a great performer succeeds by raising everyone else’s game, not merely by his or her individual efforts. Like Bill, Ed had that ability to lift up those around him to attain greater success. 

Great Performance Outlasts The Player

The accomplishments of successful leaders last long after their tenure in office. For their contributions not only match the temper of the times but also rest on timeless insights. 

CUNA President Dan Mica captured this impact in Ed’s New York Times obituary in April 2009: “Ed Callahan largely shaped the credit union movement as we know it.”

One of Ed’s insights from the August 1995 Callahan Report addressed the issue that if credit unions did things like banks, did that mean they were no different from other financial institutions?

Credit unions are different and always have been. We do not come together with the intention of making money. We come together with the intention of helping people. 

Executives sitting around a table making decisions that answer to the question, “Will it make money?” will over time make fundamentally different decisions than executives making decisions that answer the question, “Will it help people?”

In the short run the answers may be the same. In the long run, they never are. 

For Those Who Missed The Experience 

Jim Blaine closed Ed’s tribute:

In the final analysis you can say many things about a great man's life. Some men are admired, some are respected, some are envied, some are feared. But, in the final analysis, the most important thing you can say about a great man is, "he will be missed."

And, Ed Callahan will be missed.

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March 18, 2019


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