Check Engine Light

A friend called recently to ask me a car related question. He told me that his check engine light had been on but had recently gone off. He wanted to know if he should be worried about that. I wasn’t even sure where to begin.

If you have been reading the musings, you know that I am a fan of F1 racing. The drivers are arguably the best in the world, and the cars are a marvel of engineering and technology. Equipped with advanced telemetry, the engineers on the pit wall can monitor the cars for almost every conceivable data point in real time. Unlike your and my daily driver, they have much more than just a general warning light to let them know when something is not right.

The other difference between our cars and F1 race cars is the rate at which things are happening. In my daily driver, the engine is running well within its acceptable range. Temps are low, RPMs are reasonable, and lubrication and cooling systems are designed far in excess of what is needed under normal operating conditions. In an F1 car, things are running right on the edge of capability. To get the most power out of the engine, and therefore the most speed out of the car, things are all at their max. RPMs are as high as possible, everything is hot, and the systems used to cool and lubricate the engine are barely adequate.

When the check engine light comes on in our car, it means something is not quite right and needs to be attended to. However, in most cases we can take care of that issue within a reasonable amount of time (unlike my friend). Because the engine has a significant reserve capacity, it can handle minor interruptions in certain systems’ efficiencies without breaking down. In an F1 car, things are very different. With millions of dollars on the line and huge incentives to finish each race, teams still often box (pull into the pit) and even pull their car out of the race once something goes wrong. At the speed these engines are running and the forces that are being applied, small issues become big issues very rapidly.

Whether it is a general warning light or advanced telemetry, it is all useless if we don’t heed the warning. The harder a system is being pushed, the more critical it is that we respond to the warnings quickly.

This applies to our leadership and our teams, too.

Most teams are more like our daily driver car than an F1 car. They may accelerate hard from time to time but tend to operate within the posted speed limits most of the time. However, the last couple of years have seen our teams spending more time in F1 mode and less in family car mode. Likewise, leadership itself tends to be a faster pace and a more grueling run. The question we must answer is, “What are the warning lights for our people and ourselves?”

Issues with sleep

Interrupted sleep patterns are often an early sign of mental and emotional weariness. The inability to sleep or the need to sleep too much can be a sign that someone has been at redline too long and needs to back off. Medicating ourselves to achieve sleep might be necessary for a short time, but it is never a good long-term solution. If you are unable to sleep well or find yourself sleeping too much, heed the warning.

General fatigue

If you are experiencing general fatigue or lack of interest and energy, first see a doctor to rule out a medical condition. If you are otherwise healthy, the lack of energy you are experiencing could be stress related. Often in F1 races, the drivers experience a loss of power right before the car fails completely. A lack of energy is one of the ways your body tells you it is unable to maintain the pace.

General health issues

Sometimes people who are burned out experience nonspecific health related issues. Headaches, digestion problems, muscle soreness, skin conditions, hair loss, and others can all be signs of mental and emotional stress. Again, if you are experiencing specific health issues, you should see a doctor, but don’t rule out that your physical ailments could be related to your mind and your emotions.


An increasingly cynical outlook, anger, lack of tolerance, and self-criticism are all potential signs of mental and emotional burn-out. Obviously, some people struggle with one or more of these traits regularly, however, a significant change in personality is often a warning sign.

It would be great if people had actual warning lights. Unfortunately, some people would ignore those just like my friend ignored his car’s check engine light. This is where community is so important. In a healthy community, we look for the warning lights in each other and help each other recognize when we need to let off the gas and slow down.

As leaders, if we believe we can run full throttle all the time and ignore the warning lights, we will create a culture where that is the expectation. We may get lucky and get quite a ways down the road with the check engine light on, but eventually, we will lose power and find ourselves stranded on the side of the road. A healthy community is more like an F1 team where everyone is watching the data and helping to make the call when it is time to box. Taking care of each other is the smart play, and it is The Kimray Way.