This article was co-authored by Cathleen Clerkin.

Why should leaders care about their sleep?

For many leaders, lack of sleep is almost a badge of honor. At work, people mention how little sleep they’ve gotten, as if this fact demonstrates their effectiveness, dedication, or ambition. After all, what better way to get ahead of the pack then by putting in the extra hours? The current mainstream business culture reinforces this too, with round-the-clock demands: middle-of-the night conference calls, cross-continental travel, and constant interruptions. Yet, while burning the midnight oil may seem effective in the short term, research demonstrates that in the long term, skipping out on sleep is a sure way to damage your performance.

What impact does sleep have on leadership?

Sleep—or lack of it—can greatly affect your ability to lead. Neuroscience experts have shown that sleep deprivation impairs health, brain power, motor skills, and people skills—reducing effectiveness in decision making and problem solving in all aspects of life. For instance, sleep is required in order for the brain to consolidate memories and integrate new information.  Therefore, sleep deprivation can lead to poor memory, diminished focus and slower responses, making it difficult to make important decisions in uncertain and complex work environments.

Sleep deprivation also impairs mood regulation, often leading to anxiety and hostility, which can make it difficult to engage in the interpersonal processes necessary for leadership. In addition to mood and cognitive impairments, sleep deprivation has also been shown to have significant negative effects on physical health, including higher risks of accidents, diabetes, heart disease, and hypertension.

So while putting in long hours may seem necessary to manage heavy workloads, in the long run (taking into account the tolls on your cognition, mood, and health) the better way to increase your performance and productivity is to actually work less and sleep more.

How can leaders get better sleep?

Research shows that getting an ample amount of sleep will improve your performance more than trading sleep for additional working time.  But what if you just can’t fall asleep? Fortunately, sleep experts have discovered a number of tactics that are effective at improving the quality of sleep.

Leaders who are ready for a better night’s rest should try these 6 tips:

  • Stick to a regular sleep schedule (going to bed and waking up at the same time)
  • Create a relaxing bedtime ritual to help unwind (take a bath, read a novel, etc.)
  • Refrain from using your bed as a workspace (e.g. no eating, arguing, texting, typing)
  • Leave bed if sleep isn’t happening (do something relaxing, return to bed when you’re tired)
  • Avoid getting revved up at night (no work messages, bright lights, caffeine, alcohol, or nicotine)
  • Exercise early and daily (avoid working out within 3 hours of bed time).

What if you were no longer sleep deprived?

Like any leadership skill, improving your sleep requires self-awareness and takes some practice. We at CCL would like to challenge you to try improving your leadership through getting better sleep. To accept this challenge, try out the following steps:

  1. Start paying attention to your sleep habits. How many hours of sleep are you getting? Are you well-rested in the morning? What helps you sleep and what hinders you? (e.g. eating, drinking, working) Try keeping a sleep diary to keep track of your sleep habits.
  2. Learn the strategies of good sleep. We’ve described some of these sleep tactics in this blog. For additional tips, check out Harvard Medical School, The Sleep Foundation and The Sleep Council.
  3. Make changes to your sleep routine. Use the information you’ve gained from learning about sleep and paying attention to your sleep habits to inform and change what you do at bedtime. Experiment to see what works and what doesn’t. Make sure you are paying attention to what habits lead to your best night’s sleep.

Remember, making time for sleep is not a sign of laziness or weakness, but rather, it’s a sign of strong leadership.  If you can’t improve your sleep quality on your own, see your doctor.  There are treatments and therapies for many sleep disorders.

We want to hear from you!

Are you ready to take our sleep challenge? Let us know how your sleep experiments go.  We want to know whether getting more sleep affects your leadership!  Which sleep tips work for you?  Which don’t? Do you have any secret sleep-tips you want to share with other leaders? Share your stories and experiences by leaving a comment on this blog post!

Additional Resources:

The Dangers of Sleep Deprivation Infographic from HealthCentral


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