Why One of Your Greatest Leadership Tools Should Be a Pillow

Dr. Michael O’Brien
While it might not be a priority for some executives, sleep is a cornerstone to strong leadership.

While it might not be a priority for some executives, sleep is a cornerstone to strong leadership. Here’s how poor sleep can affect your ability to lead.

If you’re like most healthcare executives, you endeavor to have your days be the pinnacle of productivity. You manage your schedule tightly and keep your meetings brief and focused. You delegate when possible, and pull every possible ounce of analysis out of reports. But despite all of that effort, you might still be missing one of the most critical keys to productivity: sleep.

More Than Alertness

You’ve heard the old adage: “Early to bed and early to rise, make a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” Once nothing more than a catchy piece of advice, modern research has proven just how true the saying really is.

“I used to suggest that sleep is the third pillar of good health, along with diet and exercise,” Matthew Walker, a professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, told TIME Magazine. “But I don’t agree with that anymore. Sleep is the single most effective thing you can do to reset your brain and body for health.”

If you let sleep fall to the wayside during the work week, you could be sabotaging your ability to lead far beyond mere drowsiness. Here’s how lack of sleep could manifest itself during your workday:

1. Sensitivity to Stress

Lack of deep sleep at night can affect your physiology during the day. Sleep-deprived bodies suffer from high blood pressure, shallow breathing, and an elevated heart rate. Sound familiar? That’s exactly how your body responds to stress. When we skip out on solid sleep, our bodies get locked into this fight-or-flight response, making us extra sensitive to stress — whether or not there’s a good reason to worry.

Staying wound up in stress can cloud your ability to read situations, making you more likely to overreact to conflicts or read too much emotion into an exchange with a colleague. Getting a consistent seven hours is therefore crucial to making smart decisions and maintaining trusting relationships.

2. Lack of Emotional Intelligence

Strong leadership is contingent upon self-analysis and emotional intelligence. But neither of these are possible without quality sleep.

“When a memory is filed away during sleep, it’s also stripped of some of the powerful feelings — like fear, grief, anger or joy — that might have clouded the experiences in the heat of the moment,” TIME reported. Without this process, it’s impossible to move on from anger or loss, or even to look at past failures and successes objectively.

It can take up to a week’s worth of good sleep to successfully strip important memories of their emotion, according to TIME, so don’t settle for one or two early nights — make good sleep a habit.

3. Difficulty Executing Work

Beyond the interpersonal and emotional difficulties, we discussed above, a lack of sleep plain and simply makes it harder to get quality work done.

When we skimp on sleep, the part of our brain that suffers most is the prefrontal cortex. That’s the part of the brain that commands “executive functions” like problem solving, organization, and planning.

One study even found healthy amounts of sleep were vital to creative thinking. According to the Harvard Business Review, a study participants that were caught up on sleep were far more likely to discover a hidden shortcut in a task than those who weren’t.

Building a Culture of Good Sleep

Despite its critical role in enabling and executing leadership, getting quality sleep appears to be a relatively low priority for many executives. A Harvard Business Review survey revealed that nearly half of business leaders don’t get enough sleep at least four nights a week.

So, even if you have already made getting solid sleep a habit, try to help your co-workers do the same — it could affect the efficacy of your entire executive team. While 24/7 connectivity doesn’t make that easy, a bit of discipline can go a long way. If you happen to be up late working, try to avoid sending out that last-minute email before bed. While it might be easy for you to hit “send” then hit the hay, you could end up costing the recipient hours of sleep thinking about your note.

In addition to helping your executive team preserve its emotional intelligence and productivity, research shows promoting sleep can also help business leaders improve employee engagement and reduce churn throughout their organization.

Prioritizing sleep can simultaneously improve your leadership abilities, the effectiveness of your executive team, and employee performance across your business — no need to sleep on that decision!