Sleep Well, Lead Well

Sleep well Lead well

“Sleep is the best meditation” ~ Dalai Lama It has been repeatedly shown by researchers that sleep, or a lack of it, can have a very profound impact on long term health and wellbeing. Yet there have been few studies into the impact of sleep on leadership. Have you ever wondered how a series of bad nights’ sleep impacts the way that you perform at work? Well, so has the Center for Creative Leadership.

In 2014, the Center for Creative Leadership released a white paper, written by Carol Connolly, Marian Ruderman and Jean Brittain Leslie called “Sleep Well, Lead Well”. The premise of the paper was that improved sleep can also lead to better leadership, increased productivity and greater innovation.

The report noted that people often deeply underestimate the effect that a lack of sleep has on productivity, and that the effects on our cognitive capacity can be profound. None of this assists leading, of course.

Reporting on the attitudes of senior leaders and executives, the report argued that: “Sleep is not a luxury” Yet all too often it is considered so by busy leaders that are over stretched in the work place. The impact of ever increasing connectivity is also blamed for the problem, leading to people having less sleep. All too frequently days become extended and something has to be dropped.

Commonly among leaders sleep is the casualty. The writers argue however, that sleep is essential to leadership functions. It is explained that lost sleep has a negative impact on both motor skills and people skills. It damages concentration and leads to a poorer memory. It also negatively impacts communication and creativity, while increasing moody behaviour, stress and anxiety. None of these help leaders with being great. Ultimately it is argued that poor sleep impacts organisations.

The white paper is very specific in arguing that five or six hours of sleep are simply not enough to be effective. Without a good night’s sleep, it is argued that we do not get to the point where we reach REM sleep. This is the period during which the activities of the previous day are processed by the brain, and when learned skills become consolidated. It is explained that if leaders do not get sufficient REM sleep then their day does not get processed and they are less able to be insightful, make connections and remember useful information. They state:

“In contrast, ample REM sleep improves our ability to make inferences and connections. We are more likely to have insights and solve problems”.

Ask any leader if they want to have insights and solve problems and the answer will be a resounding “Yes, of course!” Without proper REM sleep, this will apparently be very hard to achieve. At the same time without sufficient REM sleep it is explained in the white paper that negative moods and emotions are more likely to retained, leading to less creative insight. Ultimately, as the authors of the paper explain:

“Managers, executives and many others are working long and hard, dealing with complex issues and facing unknown challenges. Sleep deprivation limits the ability to respond to complex organisational challenges”.

One of the problems is argued to be that leaders say that they don’t have time to sleep as much as is needed to boost productivity. However, in contrast it is explained frankly that leaders do not have time to be tired, and this is the approach that should be taken towards sleep.

The authors argue that leaders should “push back on the 24/7 culture”, and promote the importance of a good night’s sleep throughout the organisation, in terms of productivity and decision making, among others. Working on a so-called “sleep awareness” campaign is described to be an important part of improving employee wellbeing.

Leaders are encouraged to help employees with their schedules especially before and after travel, and to set fair norms for working across different time zones, as well as accessibility to employees out of hours. In terms of personal recommendations, the report argues that most people have to have somewhere between seven to nine hours of sleep each night.

Also, 5% need more than this and another 5% can get by on a bit less. It is also argued that when on holiday it is helpful to go to bed at the same time each night and sleep until you wake up without an alarm set. This will show you how much sleep your body actually needs, and when you get back from your holiday you can work towards getting that each night.

Additional resource:  Infographic about the benefits of sleep

We love sleep Infographic by