Firing on only two cylinders

Panoz LMP-1 Roadster, powered by a huge 8 cylinders
sPanoz LMP-1 Roadster, powered by a huge 8 cylinder engine

When we “fire on all cylinders” it is a metaphor for everything going smoothly and at full capacity and effort.

When we are “not firing on all cylinders”, then the assumption is that we are under-performing and that is often the case.

However, today I’m going to tell two stories aimed at asking you to consider your own performance, and whether sometimes firing on only as few as two cylinders can actually be really beneficial.

Firing on all cylinders

Many of my summer weekends from early childhood to my late teens were spent watching motor racing, either as my father himself was racing, or because he took my brother and me to watch racing, including the Le Mans 24 hours race held each midsummer weekend in France.

Decades later, my brother and I took my father to watch the Le Mans 24 hours once again. We were delayed in traffic, so by the time we walked to the trackside the race had already started and we could hear the race engines.

Of all of these, the one that gave me goosebumps was the massive V8 engines of the Panoz LMP-1 Roadster. What a sound!

Apart from that first moment when I heard that sound when I literally jumped for joy like a kid (I was 35 at the time!), I also vividly remember in the quiet of night hearing the big V8 coming towards us down the three mile Mulsanne straight.

Just listen to this for a moment:

So, a race-tuned V8 engine “firing on all cylinders” is, for me, a thing of beauty, and also an example of high performance.

“Not firing on all cylinders”

The thing is, though, in a 24-hour race, a highly tuned race car may well develop problems. In fact, at the Le Mans 24 hours, typically less than a third of the cars that start the race actually finish without suffering major mechanical issues.

So, no machine and no vehicle can constantly perform at their peak for long period without rest or tuning. Humans feel this more than machines, hence for the 24 hour race, cars typically have three drivers who take shifts.

When a car is literally “not firing on all cylinders”, it is out of tune, it misfires, the fuel does not ignite in all cylinders when injected into the carburettor. The car loses timing and power and the sound, for race fans, is sad to hear. I won’t share an example, it isn’t a beautiful sound.

So, a car that is overworked to the point where it won’t fire on all cylinders will ultimately break down, stop running.

However, let’s look at the idea of not firing on all cylinders differently.

When is it ok to fire on only two cylinders?

I’m laying on this metaphor a little thick perhaps, but it comes from a call this week with a friend who knows, in themselves, that they tend to try to fire on all cylinders for long days, day after day, week after week etc.

On this call, though, everything about them had slowed down. Their pace of speech, pace of thinking. As we spoke they were sitting in the garden at a family members house in the country, having been there some time and not thought about work even once during that time.

At one point they were beating themselves up a little about not thinking about work, then, as we talked, they asked “isn’t this something you coach your clients around?”.

Naturally, regular readers will know I am very much focussed on awareness and individual performance as core to being a leader, so yes, this is a recurring theme.

On this occasion, I spoke to my friend about the car I recently bought. It has a latest model 4 cylinder turbocharged engine yet achieves greater fuel economy and longevity than the smaller engine in the previous generation from the manufacturer. Well, that is odd, I thought (those who are geeks on engines know that the larger the engine, the more fuel it burns, so how could it be more economical?).

Well, the secret to this engine having great fuel economy is that when it is being driven relatively slowly and gently (eg on town roads with speed restrictions), it automatically shuts down two of the four cylinders and runs on only two cylinders.

I remain blown away by this idea, given so many years around race cars tuned to the max and where firing on all cylinders is always, always the goal, firing on one or more less is really bad news.

It suddenly seemed so obvious to consciously shut down and fire on only two cylinders when that is all that is needed when you only need to move slowly.

For my friend, the point of the story was to be ok with the fact they are taking some time away from the business. While on this holiday break, the most they use their brain for is to decide whether to sit in the garden or perhaps to nap. To say they are firing on only two cylinders on holiday may be an exaggeration, but one thing I am sure of, when they do start thinking about work again, they will be recharged and highly tuned once again.

With so many of us constantly feeling the need to fire on all cylinders in all areas of life to manage during the pandemic, if at all possible for you in this month of August, make some time for you to consciously shut down a little, before your engine breaks down.


Also published on Medium.