reality is never as easy and clean as legend makes it out to be

Legends don’t just happen, they’re built.

Despite its name, New College (part of Oxford University) isn’t exactly new, having been built in the late 1300s. And with that kind of history, it isn’t surprising that even some of its buildings have their own stories and legends. Take the New College dining hall, known for the enormous oak beams that span across its ceiling.

When an entomologist in 1859 discovered that the beams were riddled with beetles and needed to be replaced, people started to go into a panic. Where would they find replacement oak beams of that size?

Well, according to legend, the 14th-century Fellows of New College had known the beams would one day need to be replaced, so they’d planted a grove of oak trees on campus precisely for that purpose. They weren’t just thinking long-term, they were (literally) planting seeds for decades and centuries in the future.

As the story goes, their College Foresters (not a job I was ever aware of before today) were well aware of the New College Fellows’ plan, as it had been passed down from one Forester to the next, with the adage “You don’t cut them oaks. Them’s for the College Hall.”

Like most legends, this one was embellished to sound better over time. I’m not sure anyone truly believed that all the beams were original for over 500 years, but people do believe in strange things.

Why the plan might be more important than the legend.

The legend might have been embellished, but the New College Fellows actually truly were thinking ahead. They bought some nearby forests and managed the woods according to best practices. They grew strands of mixed broadleaf trees, harvested trees like hazel and ash every 20 years or so, and let the oaks grow for 100-150 years or more. By continuing to plant and monitor the forests they owned, they were able to harvest some of the trees for various uses, plus keep a bunch of oaks spread over all of their properties (even if they were more likely used for ship-building than building ceiling beams.)

Embellishments aside, this type of long-term thinking is what makes their story worth telling. While they probably didn’t know whether the college would still be around in 700 years, it might not have been if their plans were short-sighted.

They saw a need and created a plan that had options. They gave themselves enough flexibility to adapt to reality, not march in-step to a hardline philosophy or float through a pie-in-the-sky fantasy.

Why its worth looking farther ahead than next quarter.

With most companies, goals are set for the next quarter, and then they have even higher expectations for the year. They only seem to focus on profitability, not true results. And in the end, these “right now” solutions are creating future problems.

Thankfully, credit unions don’t have to work exactly like other companies. They’re not enslaved to private stockholders demanding a payout every quarter. That’s not to say CUs don’t feel pressure to perform in the short term, but they have more room to build a longer strategic focus. What’s being done now could keep paying off for the CU and it’s members in decades to come. To do that, you have to change your perspective to the long-term.

You can do this because a credit union isn’t a corporation, it’s a community. It’s alive, and like all living things, it can grow and change. You have to pay attention to what you’re feeding it and how you’re treating it, so it can grow up to reach its full potential. You’re going to have a harder time realizing that potential if you’re constantly scrambling to keep up. You need a strategic plan with flexibility built in, a plan that can overcome those obstacles that are bound to pop up.

Because reality is never as easy and clean as legend makes it out to be. When you look past the embellishments you’ll find the real story*, as well as the blood, sweat and tears that went into making something that will last.

After all, legends don’t just happen, they’re built.

*Researchers have since found that the New College replacement beams were sourced from nearby forests that were owned by the college since 1441, not chopped down on campus. And at least one time the roof of the hall was rebuilt in 1786 using pitch pine timbers, because the large oak timber was apparently unavailable. Plus the great hall burned to the ground three years in a row. So there’s that.

Kent Dicken

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