4 Reasons Your Leadership Suffers When You Cheat Sleep

Here’s What Your Late Nights are Really Costing You

If you’re an entrepreneur, corporate boss, or ministry leader, chances are good you’re not getting enough sleep. In fact, I’d bet money on it.

The national average is short of seven hours a night. And that number, already below the recommended eight, is probably overstated. Why do I think that?

Sleepy Leaders

We usually report how much time we spend in bed, not how much time we’re actually sleeping. Research shows we get about 20 percent less sleep than we think. That pushes the national average down to about five and half hours a night.

And that’s the average! Leaders often brag about getting much less.

Donald Trump boasts about functioning on only a few hours a night. He’s not alone. Leaders at PepsiCo, Southwest, Fiat Chrysler, Twitter, and Yahoo have all claimed to thrive on half the recommended amount of sleep—sometimes less. The bragging rights go up as the time in bed goes down.

It creates a self-imposed expectation among leaders at every level. If you want to be among the best and brightest, you’re supposed to be superhuman.

Not as Glamorous as It Seems

Of course, perception is not always reality. Remember that time Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer crashed before a high-profile business meeting? Talk about embarrassing. She left marketing executives twiddling their thumbs while she got the sleep she kept avoiding.

But my point isn’t ridicule. Mayer’s story is an extreme picture of what affects countless leaders in this country.

Two thirds of leaders surveyed by Nick van Dam and Els van der Helm admitted being “generally dissatisfied with how much sleep they get….” And quantity isn’t the only issue. More than half were also dissatisfied with the quality.

This kind of sleep deprivation is costing us far more than we think, especially when it comes to the health of our organizations.

Why Cheating our Sleep Costs us All

Effective leadership depends on high executive functioning. Unfortunately, the part of the brain responsible for that functioning—the prefrontal cortex—can’t manage when we short our sleep. That means our organizations suffer when we decide to burn the midnight oil.

Van Dam and van der Helm detail four reasons skimping at night causes our leadership to suffer all day.

  1. Focus on results. “To do this well,” they say, “it’s important to keep your eye on the ball and avoid distractions, while at the same time seeing the bigger picture….”

    Unfortunately, “sleep deprivation impairs this ability to focus attention selectively.” Keep it up, and you’ll start performing as poorly as someone legally drunk.

  2. Problem solving. Achieving our organizational goals requires active, real-time problem solving. But innovation, pattern spotting, and other creative work only comes with sleep.

    Facing the day with inadequate sleep is like shipping a product without all the parts. “Sleep-deprived people come up with fewer original ideas and also tend to stick with old strategies that may not continue to be effective,” says neuroscientist Penelope A. Lewis.

  3. Gaining perspective. Leaders need perspective to make the right call in challenging situations. Skimping on sleep limits our ability to do that.

    Research shows that insufficient sleep impairs our ability to make decisions when financial rewards are on the line. The reason is that being tired blows our judgment. We’re less emotionally stable and more willing to take bad risks.

  4. Supporting teammates. Emotional stability affects other areas, too. Teams depend on high-level emotional engagement. “In a sleep-deprived state,” say van Dam and van der Helm,

    your brain is more likely to misinterpret these cues and to overreact to emotional events, and you tend to express your feelings in a more negative manner and tone of voice. Recent studies have shown that people who have not had enough sleep are less likely to fully trust someone else, and another experiment has demonstrated that employees feel less engaged with their work when their leaders have had a bad night of sleep.

    When we cheat our sleep, we are undermining our ability to navigate the relationships that make our organizations work in the first place.

How You Can Fix the Problem

Here’s the good news. Sleep is easy, at least for most of us. Our bodies and brains not only need rest, they usually want it.

Here are a few recommendations for letting nature take its course. Some of these come from van Dam and van der Helm and some from my own experience as a leader of a fast-pace, high-growth company.

  • Commit to sleep. I have posted on how to get the sleep you need before. But tactics are easy. Commitment is hard. Nothing will change until you determine to make sleep a priority.
  • Start with yourself. Team leadership starts with self-leadership. That not only means committing to sleep yourself, it also means establishing work-time limits for you and then your team. You don’t have to be a nazi about it, but people will follow your lead. So lead.

  • Let technology work for you. Work-time limits can be encouraged with technology. Slack will let you set offline notices for everyone on your team. Some email apps will let you schedule messages so team members don’t feel the need to respond after hours.

  • Honor the weekends. We’re losing the benefit of the weekend in our culture, but that doesn’t mean it’s lost. Take a stand for Saturday and Sunday. Don’t ask your team to work and don’t work yourself. Instead, get a fantastic nap.

Leaders face real and challenging limits on our time. We think we can beat those limits by cheating our sleep. Instead we just cheat our teams, who now must make do with less of us. That means we’re directly sabotaging our own leadership.

We all want to have greater impact. And we can. Surprisingly, it starts with something as simple as getting enough shuteye.

How much sleep do you get each night? Do you think it’s enough?

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