Less sleep does not make you a better leader

We'd never encourage leaders to drink alcohol to increase their productivity, so why do we encourage them to sleep less?

by Vicki Culpin
Last Updated: 03 Apr 2020
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Down to business

Never before have we been in a position to use brain scanning advances such as magnetic resonance imagery (MRI), to enable researchers to ‘see’ how sleep affects our thought processes. We now have access to big data that allows us to understand the impact of poor sleep on organisational, national and global scales. 

Yet, according to significant pieces of research, never before have significant percentages of working adults been so sleep deprived.  A 2013 study by the National Sleep Foundation reported that in the UK, 35 per cent of adults report getting less than seven hours sleep per night.  For the US this figures increases to 45 per cent and in Japan over half of the adult population are not getting the minimum recommended amount of sleep.

But does this really matter for business leaders?  If highly successful individuals such as Thomas Edison, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher ‘survived’ with only four or five hours of sleep per night, then why the drive to get the recommended seven to nine hours? 

In organisational environments today, when leaders are under ever increasing pressure to do more with less and to operate within a 24/7 economy, seven to nine hours of sleep may seem aspirational, but not critical.

Sleep - essential for good leadership performance

Getting the right amount of sleep per night, and ensuring that this sleep is of good quality, is not only critical for business performance, but also human performance – therefore leadership performance too. 

In 2016, RAND Europe published a study where they examined the human and economic cost of insufficient sleep. They reported that for individuals regularly sleeping less than 6 hours per night, at any point in time they had an increased mortality risk of 13 per cent. Sleeping for less than six hours per night increases a person’s chance of dying at any point in time by a dramatic 13 per cent! 

For those of you sleeping between six and seven hours, mortality risk is still increased by 7 per cent.  Perhaps then it is not surprising that poor sleep has been linked to seven of the top 15 causes of death in the US, including cardiovascular disease, malignant neoplasm, cerebrovascular disease, accidents, diabetes, septicaemia and hypertension.

One night of reduced sleep matters

The effects of poor sleep on chronic physical conditions may manifest over time, but it only takes one or two nights of poor sleep before your cognitive performance, the ability to succeed in your job, will be adversely affected. 

There are a range of cognitive skills, known as ‘Executive Functions’ which are skills that leaders require to successfully perform within organisational life. These include learning agility and memory, high level decision-making and problem-solving, communications skills and mood regulation, creativity and innovation of thought.  

These behaviours are highly susceptible to poor sleep; it only takes one night of reduced sleep before there are noticeable decreases in performance. 

Vicious circle of sleep deprivation

There is no logic to staying late at work to demonstrate your worth as a manager or to manage your large workload if by the very nature of staying at work you are reducing the amount of sleep you get. The act of getting too little sleep itself reduces your performance the next day – one big vicious circle.

If you want to put this in to context, after 17 hours of being awake (think of a long day at work), your alertness is reduced dramatically, with the effect equivalent to a blood alcohol level of 0.05 per cent, which is the legal drink driving limit in Scotland. We would never encourage people to drink alcohol in an attempt to increase their productivity, why is it any different for sleep if the outcome is exactly the same?

Don’t lead tired

Despite the access to leading research, explaining the serious consequences of insufficient or poor quality sleep, despite high profile CEOs leaving office because of fatigue, despite the addition of sleep hygiene courses in corporate well-being packages, and despite increased media coverage on the dangers of being sleepy, the Margaret Thatcher four hour badge of honour is still perpetuated within organisational life. 

Perhaps we should heed Bill Clinton instead who said, in 2008 when asked to provide advice to President-Elect Obama, "In my long political career, most of the mistakes I made, I made when I was too tired".

Vicki Culpin is Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Ashridge Executive Education, part of Hult International Business School.

‘The Business of Sleep:  How sleeping better can transform your career,’ by Vicki Culpin, is out now (Bloomsbury).

Image credit: Kite_Rin/Shutterstock


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