Slumber Like the C-Suite
Updated: Jul 25
The principle of making sleep a top priority is a must for every aspiring leader. Living by this rule provides health benefits that will pay dividends throughout your professional career and beyond. Moreover, by assigning priority to healthy slumber, you will distinguish yourself from your sleep-deprived peers.
Not only does a growing body of research uphold these truths, but many of today’s top executives are living the dream because they acknowledge and honor the hard link between good sleep and good leadership.
Sleeping for Success
Researchers Rasmus Hougaard and Jaqueline Carter have found that the more senior a person’s role is, the more sleep he or she tends to get. Based on an assessment of 35,000 organizational leaders and interviews with 250 others, they concluded that the primary reason those in the C-suite sleep more is: “senior executives have had the wisdom and discipline throughout their career to get enough sleep and thereby maintain a high performance level without burning out.”
In the words of Cees 't Hart, CEO and president of Carlsberg Group, “Sleep has always been foundational for my performance…. When I sleep less, I perform less.”
Snooze or Lose
Speaking personally, healthy sleep habits propelled the end of my career as a senior executive. Sadly, that was not always the case. While working my way up the middle management ranks in my mid-thirties and early forties, I viewed the circles under my eyes as dark badges of courage. I remember boasting about how little sleep, and how much caffeine, I could survive on. I was ultimately, and thankfully, saved by two great mentors. With their help, I eventually learned that the road to success includes quality time in the Land of Nod. But not before I had done damage to myself, in the form of high blood sugar, weight gain, low energy, and strained relationships. Worse, I had hurt others, often through moodiness and a short temper that adversely affected decisions and morale... at home, as well as on the job
Research shows that when leaders - including good leaders - arrive at work tired, they are more likely to lose patience with employees and act in harmful ways. There is also a greater likelihood that their employees will suffer from sleep deprivation and may also behave badly. As a leader, your zzz's quotient can even affect how employees judge your EQ (emotional intelligence), with traits such as charisma, inspiration, and trustworthiness more often associated with managers who report greater quantities and quality of sleep.
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to avoid these pitfalls and, instead, emulate those who (literally) sleep their way to the top. For me, two keystone habits can help secure sleep quantity and quality:
1. Block Your Calendar for Sleep
Set your intention to get a sufficient amount of sleep every night; ideally, this is in the 7-9 hour range, but only you know how much sleep you need to be your best.
Establish a non-negotiable bedtime that ensures you get the sleep you need before your alarm goes off in the morning; calendar it and hold it more sacrosanct than you would your regular staff meeting.
Consider trade-offs earlier in the day; identify activities you can skip, cancel, or delegate; end your workday early enough to meet personal and family commitments and still get to bed on time.
2. Power Down
Establish a “Power Down Hour” before bedtime. This includes not only powering down all electronics – your phone, laptop, tablet, TV, etc. – but also the noise in your head.
Make a To-Do List for tomorrow. This five-minute exercise preempts restless fretting over all the pending and unfinished tasks you have in the morning. Before going to sleep, let them go, resting assured that they are properly logged and ordered for the morning when you, fresh and energized, will be better to tackle them.
If these actions seem daunting or undoable at this point in your life, pick just one that looks manageable and test it out for a week. Then listen to your body, and the people around you, and note any changes, both good and bad. With that data in hand, consider whether other sleep investments may be worthwhile. If you are still uncertain, sleep on it and see how you feel in the morning.
Sources & Additional Resources
Barnes, Christopher M., “Sleep Well, Lead Better.” Harvard Business Review Sep-Oct 2018: 140-143. Print. Web.
Culpin, Vicki. “The Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Work Performance.” The Sleep Blog, Advanced Sleep Medicine Services, Inc. Web.
Hougaard, Rasmus, and Carter, Jacqueline, “Senior Executives Get More Sleep Than Everyone Else.” Harvard Business Review Feb 2018. Web.
Guarana, Cristiano L., and Barnes, Christopher M., “Lack of sleep and the development of leader-follower relationships over time.” Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes Revised April 2017. Web.
Sheehan, Connor M.; Frochen, Stephen E.; Walsemann, Katrina M.; and Ailshire, Jennifer A., “Are U.S. adults reporting less sleep?: Findings from sleep duration trends in the National Health Interview Survey, 2004–2017.” Sleep, Volume 42, Issue 2, Feb 2019. Web.
Infographic: "8 Practices for More Restorative Sleep" from "How Sleep Can Make You a Stronger Leader," Center for Creative Leadership. Web.