Enhance Your Sleep to Enhance Your Leadership

Rasmus Hougaard, Jens Hjorth-Larsen, Gitte Dybkjaer
This is an updated version of the article originally published in

Are you prioritizing a good night’s sleep? Getting enough sleep not only makes us feel good, it improves leadership, the ability to engage other people, create meaning and ultimately to meet our strategic objectives. And vice-versa; sleep deprivation (even by just one hour) significantly harms our performance and lowers our ability to lead effectively.

It probably won’t surprise you to read that most of us don’t get enough sleep. However, the consequences of sleep deprivation documented by scientists are quite startling.
If you are between 16 and 64 years old and get less than seven hours of sleep it will affect your ability of logical reasoning, attention, executive functions as well as your mood.
In the more severe end of the scale, a lack of sleep can lead to depression, anxiety, and symptoms of paranoia. In the long term, sleep deprivation can act as a contributing factor to the development of brain disorders such as dementia and Alzheimer’s.

“Higher-ups” get more sleep

What may also surprise you is who does get their seven+ hours of rest. The answer is: executive leaders. In fact, the survey that Potential Project did together with Harvard Business Review (that became part of the basis for the book The Mind of the Leader) of 35,000 leaders and 250+ executives from leading global companies revealed an interesting correlation between sleep and seniority: The higher people were in the corporate hierarchy, the more they slept.
There can be two possible explanations for this: Either executives work less – aided by assistants, drivers, and hard-working managers – and therefore they simply have more available hours to sleep. Or executive leaders are more conscious of the importance of sleep, and they prioritize taking rest in order to sustain high performance and avoid the risk of burn-out.

Our qualitative surveys clearly indicate the latter: Executives prioritize getting enough sleep because they are conscious of its effect on their performance. Cees ’t Hart, CEO of Carlsberg Group, told us:
“Sleep has always been fundamental for my ability to perform. Especially at the level required in my current job. I need seven hours of sleep every night. Sometimes travels and workload makes it hard – I feel the effect: When I sleep less, my performance suffers.”

68% of middle managers get by on just 5-7 hours while executive leaders get an average of 7.3 hours of sleep.

When managers run out of hours in the day, they cut into the nightly hours that should be reserved for rest. Managers tend to stay up late to catch up on emails and other tasks. Our survey showed this tendency as widespread and not gender related.
This tendency poses a problem with organization wide effects. Leaders cannot afford to treat sleep as a luxury.
Science has clearly proven a direct link between getting enough sleep and leading effectively.
Leaders who are sleep deprived are simply not able to inspire their people.

The golden hour between six and seven

On average, middle managers get one hour of sleep less than their executive counterparts. And their minds are suffering the consequences. The hour they’re missing is the window dedicated to restore the brain processes necessary for us to wake up feeling rested and refreshed.
Not that long ago, being sleep deprived was worn almost like a badge of honor proving how hard we worked.
Today, we’re fortunately becoming more focused on working smarter. Many of the leaders we inter- viewed had made a conscious effort to reverse this trend. They were proudly sharing their healthy sleep habits thus serving as inspiration to current and future leaders.
Having the discipline to get enough sleep has a significant effect on leaders’ ability to climb the corporate ladder as well as (or because of) their ability to lead effectively.

Tips and techniques for a good, restorative night’s sleep

Take a moment to reflect on your own sleep habits. Are you getting seven+ hours of sleep at night? If the answer is no, then increasing your nightly rest hours will most likely improve your well-being and boost your productivity.
We suggest making a commitment to yourself that for the next two weeks you’ll prioritize getting a minimum of seven hours of sleep every night. Be aware of and notice any changes in your wellbeing and ability to focus throughout the two weeks.

Deciding to go to bed earlier is one thing. Actually sleeping for seven+ hours is another. For many leaders, deciding when to call it a day and head to bed is only half the journey. The other half is getting a good, restorative night’s sleep. Fortunately, there is a number of actions you can take to improve the quality of your sleep.

1. Catch the melatonin wave.
Go to bed when you start to feel drowsy. For most people this would be between 10pm and 11pm.
Melatonin, our natural sleep hormone, is released from the pancreas located deep within the brain. The drowsy feeling that we experience is the relaxing effect of melatonin that makes us feel tired and eventually dose off. Paying attention to these signals and acting accordingly (i.e. going to bed when you feel tired) will not only make it easier for you to fall asleep, catching the melatonin wave will also improve the quality of your sleep.

2. Avoid screens for one hour before bed. Turn off the TV, your smartphone and your laptop
at least one hour before going to bed. Why? Screens emit blue light that suppresses the melatonin production. In other words, it causes your brain to think that it’s daytime and the sun is up – even though it’s been hours since sunset and you should be fast asleep by now.

3. Avoid mentally stimulating activities for one hour before bedtime. Answering emails, working on projects from your laptop or having intense conversations just before going to bed will also suppress melatonin production and thus keep you awake. If you instead engage in activities that aren’t stimulating for your mind it will naturally make falling asleep easier. This can be taking a walk, tidying up, doing the dishes, listening to music, etc.

4. Practice a few minutes of mindfulness before going to bed.
Studies show that practicing mindfulness at bedtime improves the quality of your sleep.

We suggest taking a few minutes to practice mindfulness sitting on your bed. Sit down, close your eyes and focus on your breath. Begin letting go of thoughts and use your exhale to release any tensions in your body. Then you can lie down on your back and extend the release to thoughts and worries, still using the exhales to let go. In this way you can release unfinished thoughts from you day so that your mind won’t be circling on them while you’re trying to fall asleep. When you begin to drift off, simply turn over on your side and fall asleep.

5. Buy an alarm clock and expel your phone from the bedroom.
Our phones are ruining our sleep – and very likely also have a detrimental effect on intimacy in relationships.

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