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Sleep and Leadership

Of all of the factors that affect leadership, sleep would likely be one of the last ever considered. However, the evidence is clear that your sleep has a direct bearing on the way you lead and the performance of your team. If you want to be a better leader, sleep is a great starting point.

According to Center for Creative Leadership, 2017, everyone's sleep needs are unique and genetically-determined, but most adults need between 7 and 9 hours a night. Yet 42% of leaders get 6 or fewer hours. Research shows that we significantly underestimate how under-slept we are and how impaired our work performance is as a result. In Forbes's The Secret Career Booster That Costs You Nothing, the author summarizes, "Lack of sleep ... apparently tricks you into thinking you’re an office all-star. People who slept just 6 hours per night for 2 weeks functioned as poorly as if they’d gone without sleep for 48 hours—yet they thought they were performing at the top of their game." To put 2 nights of sleep loss into perspective, consider this: Losing just one night of sleep leads to an 11% decrease in response time—the equivalent to being legally drunk.

Four key qualities of leadership are dramatically incapacitated by the lack of sleep:

1. Results Orientation: Alertness and attention are reduced.

2. Problem Solving: Memory degrades 40% with sleep deprivation. Researchers found a 300% increase in cognitive lapses after just 2 nights of hindered sleep.

3. Seeking Different Perspectives: Making decisions on sound analysis and avoiding cognitive bias. One night of good sleep improves learning speed by about 20% and accuracy by 39%.

4. Supporting Others. As a leader’s ability declines with less sleep, the confidence and performance of the team declines as well. Relationships deteriorate with irritability, and poor directional ability results. Tired leaders do not inspire, and tired leaders lack empathy and energy to support others. The lack of sleep of a leader has cascading effects on the team. You can’t focus well, you can’t solve problems, and your judgment and perspective are often skewed.

Think of the multiplied results when you consider that many if not most of your team members are not getting enough sleep either. That’s very likely because of your example and words. When they know you are up too late and up too early working round the clock, that is a perceived value. They expect that you want them to be like you. When you praise someone for sending an email at midnight, for always staying after hours, you are communicating that what it takes to impress you is sacrificing balance in life, which includes sleeping.

Since adequate sleep is vital, let’s make a very clear case for why getting more sleep should be at the top of your agenda and passed on to your team.

Critical thinking will improve. There’s a direct link between sleeping and critical thinking. When you get enough quality sleep, you respond well to cues in your environment, reading situations well, communicating well and taking advantage of opportunities.

“The science is clear. And what it tells us is that there’s simply no way you can make good decisions and achieve your world-changing ambitions while running on empty.” – Arianna Huffington

You will be more creative. Science shows that sleep can activate your memory, create powerful links between brain cells, and transfer information. The phase of rapid eye movement (REM) in the sleep cycle is where creativity is supported through dreams. The more you dream, the more you’re able to connect with your creativity. So if you’re looking to find a unique, creative idea, get some sleep.

Good relationships will grow. When you don’t get enough sleep, relationships suffer. Sleeping well and positive moods go hand in hand. Sleep deprivation and frustration and anger go hand in hand. You’re more likely to strain relationships. By leveraging the benefits of good sleep, you can foster a team spirit of positivity, friendliness, and kindness in your team.

Performance improves. When you sleep, your body and brain undergo a host of restorative functions, including repairing muscles and cells. After a night of uninterrupted sleep, you’ll wake up feeling re-fueled, energetic, and motivated.

General health improves. Working late nights, early mornings, and clocking in overtime lead to fatigue and eventually add up to sleep deprivation. Becoming sleep deprived is a slow process, much like burnout. Both conditions include excessive sleepiness, lack of focus, a weak immune system, and mood swings. To leave a lasting legacy, you need to put your health first. Sounds a little cheesy but it’s true: To be the best, get some rest.

You probably already know how important sleep is to your health and general well-being. You may even know that you need deep sleep every night to clear out the toxins that lead to Alzheimer's. But if you're running a company or managing a business, or just have a lot of work to do, it may seem to you that you can’t do it. You can. You must. There really isn’t a trade-off for getting at least 7 hours a night and ideally 8 1/2 hours.

So here’s the crucial question—what are you going to do about it? Sleep on it, then wake up and do something long-term.

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