How Better Sleep Will Help You Become A Better Leader
For the past three years, Brexit and its bewildering state of affairs have dominated news headlines both in the UK and abroad, and it looks like the fate of the British people will be shaped by the late-night, last-minute decisions of overworked, under-slept members of Parliament.
Given the complexity and immense scale of the matter at hand, Brexit is bound to have taken a heavy toll on the wellbeing of the decision-makers involved. How can we be sure, therefore, that they are physically and mentally up to the task of making the right decisions for the nation at large? And, could a few hours of extra sleep lead to a better deal for everyone?
How much do leaders sleep?
It is a unanimous fact in science: good quality sleep is on par with diet and exercise to fully prosper and thrive in life. So it’s surprising to see many of the world’s leaders boast of how little sleep they get, as if this makes them seem more capable somehow.
Mimicking, perhaps, the behaviour of leaders past (Margaret Thatcher famously claimed to get by with just four hours of sleep every night), many leaders continue to deprive themselves of the most powerful performance enhancer known to man. Although it may be in an attempt to seem hard working, they are actually putting themselves at the risk of burnout and sabotaging their decision-making abilities. Unfortunately, this group of bad sleepers includes Theresa May, who led the Brexit negotiations whilst getting a mere five hours of sleep every night.
The good news is that we might be on the brink of a change in attitude towards sleep. A recent study looking at the sleeping patterns of 35,000 leaders found that the higher up in an organisation, the more sleep people actually got. On the one hand, one reason for this may be that with seniority comes delegation, which is bound to free up time for those higher up the ladder, allowing for more sleep. On the other hand, however, it also seems that senior executives have begun to realise the benefits of a good night’s sleep on their performance and their ability to lead.
Sleep more to be a better, healthier leader
We have all felt on edge, anxious and distracted after a poor night’s sleep. But did you know that a night of sleep deprivation affects brain function to a similar degree as alcohol intoxication? Chronic sleep deprivation can have an even more serious effect, with research showing that potential consequences include: poor judgement, greater impulsivity, reduced decision-making skills, and an increased risk of dementia and heart disease.
Even though sleep may seem like a dormant process, it is actually a highly active time during which our bodies are undergoing a series of important processes that help optimise our physical, mental, and cognitive health. Outlined below are some examples of the ways in which better sleep can help make a better leader out of everyone!
When it comes to being a great leader, good memory is important. From facts to deadlines to names, a good leader relies on their ability to remember all the things that matter when it comes to doing a good job.
There are three steps required for something to become a memory, all of which depend on good quality sleep. First, one needs the ability to acquire a memory which is the process of learning or experiencing something new. However, a sleep deprived person will experience difficulty in this process, as their ability to focus and concentrate will be greatly diminished.
Secondly, the memory needs to ‘stick’ through a process called consolidation which occurs in the hippocampus. As we sleep, the hippocampus replays the events of the day which are then stored across different, interconnected regions within the brain. But with a lack of sleep, these connections significantly weaken, affecting our ability to remember things in the long term.
Last but not least, we also need to able to recall the memory. However, this can be difficult when sleep deprived, as the storing process may not have been completed successfully.
Great leaders are great decision makers. We depend on leaders to make the right choices, especially during a challenging time with great uncertainty and change. But what lies behind one’s ability to choose the better course of action is their ability to balance emotion, reason, and logic.
However, research has shown that compared to normal sleepers, those with chronic sleep loss such as insomnia sufferers, are much more likely to engage in risky behaviour. Imaging studies have shown that these sleep-deprived participants have reduced activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, the area responsible for decision making. This area of the brain guides us to make decisions by maintaining links between previous experiences and emotional state which we’ve associated such experiences with.
It should, therefore, go without saying that good quality sleep is a very important step towards making sound decisions and avoiding potentially disastrous outcomes.
Good communication is at the core of good leadership. Whether in an effort to motivate, negotiate, encourage or train others, being a strong communicator is key. However, even a single night of reduced sleep has been shown to increase levels of stress, anger and anxiety in response to low-stress conditions.
This is because when you are sleep deprived, your amygdala (the emotional part of your brain) becomes hyperactive. In a study that investigated the ability to read emotions, participants who slept less interpreted neutral facial expressions as fearful. The inability to recognise another's emotions correctly can not only lead to poor judgement but can also cloud your decisions as well as cause problems in relationships, both at work and at home.
Overall, it is very clear that sleep deprivation has a disastrous effect on all the prerequisites of a strong leader. Good sleepers are not lazy. A minimalistic sleep routine should not be glorified but should instead be recognised as an uneducated habit. By depriving themselves of sleep, leaders are putting themselves in serious danger of deteriorating mental and physical health and putting those who depend on them at risk.
In short, sleep better to lead better. And if you are wondering you can turn all this knowledge into sustained behaviour change, check out our 5 Sleep Essentials and ACT articles. There you will find simple, practical, and research-backed guidance for getting better rest and becoming a more successful leader.
If you need help managing work stress, switching off from work at night and getting refreshing sleep, we recommend our Sleep School for Professionals App.