Lifestyle Article: Hokum and Hogwash?

Or serious game-changer? There's now a scientific link between sleep and leadership. Get the scoop on the research -- and then use our tips for getting a better night's rest:

You wouldn't drive a tractor-trailer on the interstate after pulling an all-nighter, would you?

Would you hike Mt. Katahdin's narrow Knife Edge on three hours' sleep?

And didn't you just finish telling your high school daughter to get plenty of rest before taking the SAT?

We all know that lack of sleep affects performance in a wide range of areas. But senior executives need to know that for them, the problem is more specific and relevant than that. Research shows that fatigue and sleep disruption negatively impact four abilities and behaviors that are critical to good leadership.

That is, a tired leader can sometimes be a bad leader.

The reason? Research shows that while sleep loss can impair vision and motor control, its most damaging impact is on the higher-order mental skills associated with the prefrontal cortex of the brain. These skills include the ability to focus and avoid distraction, effective problem solving, decision making, and understanding of others' perspectives. Alarmingly, these are four of the top abilities, according to a McKinsey study, exhibited by high-performing executive teams.

Yet a CDC survey of 75,000 adults found that 35 percent averaged less than seven hours of sleep per night; as many as 38 percent had found themselves involuntarily snoozing during the day at least once in the month prior to the study. And a recent McKinsey study of 180 business leaders found that 43 percent get too-little shuteye at least four nights a week.

Sound familiar? You may have thought your 18-hour workday made you a better leader. In fact, the reverse is probably true. And here's an even more sobering thought: the damage could be permanent. A University of Pennsylvania study found that mice who were subjected to conditions mimicking late-night and shift work lost brain cells. In particular, the cells, called LC cells, that foster alertness.

If the results hold for humans, then sleep-deprived drowsiness and lack of judgment and leadership ability could persist well beyond the day after the night before.

But the pressures and culture of the C-Suite are not conducive to a healthy, restful lifestyle. So what's an executive to do? Here are a few tips.

Acknowledge the importance of the issue. Getting enough sleep is like keeping up on the competition -- it's an important leadership skill. Prioritize it.

Figure out how much you need. For some, it's seven and a half hours, for others it's nine, or even 10. Find your number, and schedule yourself to make it possible.

Prepare yourself physically. Daily exercise (but not after dinner) is conducive to healthy sleep. If you can't get to the gym, walk. Up stairs, across the parking lot. Fresh air is best.

Watch what you eat (and drink). Good nutrition plays a role. Melatonin, valerian, and chamomile tea are relaxants, while foods like cherries, bananas, oatmeal and warm milk can also help. Don't drink caffeinated beverages after 4 p.m. Better yet, cut back on them partly or completely. Alcohol, too, interrupts your sleep cycle. Save it for the weekends.

Track your sleep. Most fitness trackers will now tell you whether you had a peaceful or a restless night, and just how many hours you actually slept. Free apps like SleepBot, Pillow and SleepBetter offer similar functions. Use them to help you figure out which lifestyle modifications give you the best rest.

Get in the habit. Circadian rhythms play a huge role in our well-being. Going to bed and rising at the same time each day will help you meet each day more rested and refreshed.

Turn off and unplug. The light from screens large and small can make you restless. Keep the last hour before bed technology-free.

While you're at it, consider a company-wide blackout period: no emails, texts or other work-related electronic communications between, say, 8 p.m. and 7 a.m. Send the message to all your employees that you expect them to rest and bring their freshest, best selves to work each day.

Then, maybe, you will do the same.


Reprinted with permission courtesy of