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Get Enough Sleep? REALLY?

| March 15, 2016

by Jim Bruce

Last Sunday morning most of us experienced a disruptive event in our sleeping as we shifted our physical and mental clocks forward one hour to Daylight Saving Time.  This wasn’t all that unusual since most of us regularly disrupt our sleep.  And, in spite of our frequent claims – “I don’t need sleep,” “I can get by on two or three hours of sleep,” … – van Dam and van der Helm’s recent survey of some 200 business leaders suggests that at least four out of ten leaders are in denial on this point and that six in ten are unhappy about the amount of sleep they really get.  And, this is a problem. 

To understand this problem, we need to do a small detour into human biology and the brain.  The last part of our brain to evolve was the neo-cortex.  It’s responsible for functions including language, perception, and motor commands.  The front part of the neo-cortex, the prefrontal cortex, is responsible for a set of functions called executive functioning.  These include our higher order cognitive processes – problem solving, reasoning, organizing, planning, executing plans, etc.  These are all functions about getting things done.  And, an individual’s leadership activities involve these executive functions, often several of them working in concert.

Now, here’s the rub.  Sleep deprivation impairs our ability to perform these executive functions.  Research has demonstrated that after being awake around 18 hours our ability to perform a set of tasks is equivalent to that of someone with a blood alcohol level of 0.05%.  (In the US, individuals 21 and older with blood alcohol levels of ≥0.08% are considered to be driving while impaired.  The level for commercial drivers is 0.04%.)  After being awake for about 20 hours, performance equals that of someone with a blood alcohol level of 0.1%. 

Jill Duffy, in her essay “Why Six Hours of Sleep Is As Bad As None At All,” reports on a sleep deprivation study which found that subjects who got only six hours of sleep each night for two weeks performed as poorly as those who were deprived of sleep for two full days. So, clearly, sleep deprivation affects our ability to execute the duties of a leader.  And, as the study also demonstrated, we don’t know how sleep deprived we really are and, therefore, how impaired our performance is.

In their study focusing on what really matters in leadership, Feser, Mayol, and Srinivasan identified four behaviors  –

·  being supportive of 
·  operating with a results orientation,
·  solving problems effectively, and
·  seeking different perspectives 

 – (out of a list of 20) which account for 89% of the difference in leadership effectiveness between strong and week organizations.  (The survey population was 189,000 drawn from 81 diverse organizations.)

These behaviors can be connected to mental capabilities directly affected by sleep:
•  Supporting others:  emotional reactions, developing relationships
•  Results orientation:  attention, concentration
•  Problem solving:  creativity, developing insight, recognizing patterns
•  Seeking different perspectives:  learning and memory, decision making.
 (Adapted from Feser,
So, when we don’t get adequate sleep, whether we realize it or not, our ability to lead is diminished, sometimes severely. 

Duffy along with Van Dam and van der Helm suggest a number of practices we can develop to improve our sleep:
1.  Create a good sleep environment – no smartphone (even its presence creates stress), keep the bedroom cool, and don’t use the bedroom for work.
2.  Take time to wind down, relax and reduce stress before retiring.  Avoid looking at electronic screens during this time.
3.  Go to bed at a consistent time each night.
4.  In the morning when the alarm goes off, get up.  Don’t hit “Snooze.”  That way you cycle through the stressful process of your brain going from sleep to awake only once.
5.  Be efficient with your time – going to bed early is better than sleeping late.
Not getting enough sleep will limit your effectiveness as a leader.  And, mostly you are the only one who can do anything about it.  You may want to take some time this week to reexamine your sleep habits and take the initiative to make any changes you find necessary.
Make it a wonderful week.  .  .  .     jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.
Nick van Dam, Els van der Helm, The Organizational Cost of Insufficient Sleep, McKinsey & Company.
Nick van Dam, Els van der Helm,  There’s a Proven Link Between Effective Leadership ad Getting Enough Sleep, Harvard Business Review. 
Jill Duffy, Why Six Hours of Sleep Is As Bad As None At All, FastCompany. 
Claudio Feser, Fernanda Mayol, Ramesh Srinivasan, Decoding Leadership:  What Really Matters, McKinsey Quarterly.