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The blown fuses that leaders can't afford

What are the non-replaceable fuses, that, when “blown,” damage leaders’ careers and companies in a way that can never be repaired?

The blown fuses that leaders can’t afford

By Jay Fehnel for Johan Advisors

Setting up the artificial Christmas tree is my least-enjoyable household chore of the year.  Each December, it’s a “man vs. tree” wrestling match leaving me with heavy breathing and light bleeding.

For the last two years, there’s been an extra challenge: trying to figure out why two sections of the lights (out of 30-some) won’t light.  Finally, after a few more hours of research, I got my answer: Those lights won’t be shining no matter what I do.

It turns out there are three types of fuses in my tree’s wiring.  Two of them are easy to find -- and even have replacement fuses sitting right next to the active ones.  They can be reset in a minute. 

Fuses are little but vital objects; they break an electric circuit if the current exceeds a safe level, to prevent fires and permanent damage to electrical equipment.

What wasn’t clear is that my tree has a third type of fuse that can never be replaced.

Yep, a “non-replaceable fuse”.  This manufacturer stopped using them in 2012, two years after my tree was made.  For me, two of those fuses are blown and the lights in those sections will be dark forever.

As I wondered why anyone would ever design an electrical system with hard-wired, non-replaceable fuses, it dawned on me that they exist in our lives, too, especially in the lives of today’s leaders.

What are the non-replaceable fuses, that, when “blown,” damage leaders’ careers and companies in a way that can never be repaired?

Here are the big four that occurred to me:

Trust - When I speak to early-career audiences, I often tell them that “When people don’t trust you nothing else matters.”  On rare occasions, you can lose the trust of your superiors, your team and your shareholders with one bad move that causes people to lose trust in you for good. (See leaders at Equifax, Uber, Zenefits and others.)  More frequently, trust is lost over time, by small lies, a lack of ethics under stress, missing deadlines, not living up to commitments, or treating others poorly.

When I was younger, I saved an old Peanuts cartoon in which Charlie Brown tells Linus, “I can’t remember names, but I never forget a slight.”  That’s the way it is for most people, especially at work.  Leaders who lose trust can never fully replace it -- and many never get the chance to try.

Physical Health - Even the most delusional leaders realize their bodies are non-replaceable.  Where leaders make mistakes is overestimating how repairable their bodies are. Researchers are constantly finding new ways in which we are overstressing and overworking our minds and bodies, creating damage that is both immediate and cumulative.=

Many of the causes of physical decline have been well known since we were kids (smoking, drugs, alcoholism). At the same time, we are inventing new ways to blow out our bodies, from lack of sleep, to vision problems from staring at a screen all day, to the “texting hunch” that comes from hours spent over a phone every day.  What damage is your lifestyle doing to your body and brain? Will it be repairable? Do you want to risk it?

Family and Friends -  Many of my executive coaching clients tell me that they feel they are short-changing the people most important to them due to their work habits.  They feel they aren’t spending the time they should to ensure a happy marriage or relationship -- or to raise their kids in the way they really want to.  When they are together with their loved ones they acknowledge they are only half-present, glancing at their phones or trying to act like they are paying attention to their spouse while their laptop has their full focus. 

Time - While time should be the most obvious case of a non-replaceable resource, many don’t realize it until it’s too late.  Americans keep working more, taking less vacation and not unplugging when they do.  Meanwhile, rest, health, relationships, hobbies, time outdoors and other activities that pay-off in joy go ignored. Ultimately, mis-spent time is the ultimate “opportunity cost” - what you could have been doing when you were working too much.

As you pause at the end of the year to focus on your priorities, you may want to start by identifying the “non-replaceable fuses” in your career, your company and your life.  

What do you risk losing too soon -- and possibly forever?

Once you have that awareness, commit to designing habits that can serve as your fuses -- ones that detect problems early and, most importantly, can be re-set.

Design new feedback mechanisms to send you early warning signals when your most valuable assets are at risk … before the Big Blowout.

With awareness, commitment and vigilance you can avoid permanently damaging the circuits that bring the most vital energy to your life.

(Jay Fehnel is an Executive Coach and Strategy Advisor for C-suite leaders, senior management teams and their high-potential successors.  He helps executives define and achieve their professional and personal growth goals.  An experienced COO, general manager, strategist, marketer and board member, Jay is principal and owner of Johan Advisors, LLC.)