Article

NextGen Know-How: How Sleep Impacts Leadership

woman’s hand sticking out of white bed covers holding cup of coffee
Laurie Maddalena, MBA, CSP, CPCC Photo
Executive Coach/Consultant
Envision Excellence

5 minutes

Not prioritizing this fundamental need affects not only your performance, but the engagement of those around you.

As a leadership consultant and success coach, I believe that habits are an important element of leadership success. Our daily practices are what support our focus, results and growth, allowing us to be at our best every day so we can effectively serve those who we lead. I believe that sleep is one of the most underrated success habits, and when crunched for time, I often choose sleep over other practices I have instilled like meditation and yoga. I see a significant difference in my performance when I get a great night’s sleep.

But what happens when you slip from your routine and choose comfort over discipline?

My typical nightly routine starts after I put my three young children to bed. I read for almost an hour before I turn off my light at 9:30 p.m. to get a full night’s sleep. An ideal night of sleep for me is about eight and a half hours (sometimes nine). When I follow through on this routine, the next morning (after my cappuccino!) I feel refreshed, energized and ready to take action on my day.

Last week, my three kids were on spring break, which changed up our routine. Instead of leaving the house at 8:20 a.m. for school, we were shuffling them to a spring break camp for half the day, then over to my mother-in-law’s for the rest of the day. My husband and I didn’t take time off from work that week, and since our normal work routine was interrupted, we were exhausted at the end of each day. The first night of spring break, I told my husband I was too tired to read and suggested we watch “Billions” on Netflix. (He got me hooked on this show a couple of months ago.) We proceeded to binge watch “Billions” for seven nights in a row, going to bed between 10:30 and 11:00 p.m. A little mindless TV won’t hurt, right?!

All of last week, I could feel the negative impact of less sleep on my energy and focus. Tasks that are normally easy for me to knock out felt harder to tackle, and I wasn’t nearly as productive as I normally am. My lack of sleep compounded each day, and near the end of the week, I was less patient and more irritable with my kids. My little sleep “experiment” proved that breaking from my routine wasn’t worth it.

Sleep Impacts Performance and Engagement

Sleep plays a crucial role in our everyday performance and is necessary for us to perform at our best. In a study reported on in the Harvard Business Review, researchers found that managers lacking sleep were more irritable, impatient and more hostile toward their employees. Not only does lack of sleep impact decisions and a leader’s personal productivity, but it also has a negative impact on employee engagement, productivity and team decision-making. In fact, sleep-deprived leaders can actually cause their employees to behave less ethically.

Leaders need sufficient sleep to lead others well. I often hear leaders boast about how little sleep they get, and I’ve even read some books that encourage people to sleep an hour less a day so they can fit other things in. I do believe for many people, getting up a little earlier to exercise or meditate is beneficial, but not at the expense of a good night’s sleep.

In our modern society, we have so many competing demands that it can feel overwhelming. Many women bear the brunt of juggling full-time work while also managing children and household duties. As women have worked toward closing the career gap, they have taken on more and more responsibilities that often feel impossible to manage. Top that off with a global pandemic that, for the better part of a year, has had parents managing their children’s virtual school in addition to their work responsibilities. It makes sense that many professionals find it challenging to get adequate sleep. Yet lack of sleep is a perpetual cycle that will only leave managers and professionals more depleted as they try to juggle it all.

Make Sleep a Priority

A Gallup poll indicated that 40% of Americans report they sleep less than the recommended seven hours of sleep a night. This poll only measured who gets less than seven hours; the National Sleep Foundation’s actual recommendation is that adults get seven to nine hours of sleep each night. We can assume that even more Americans are sleep deprived if there is a segment of the population who needs more than seven and up to nine hours. For me, seven hours is not sufficient. I need at least eight and a half to feel my best.

In our organizations, we need to recognize that behaviors and habits outside of work—both positive and negative—impact the work itself. Individuals and organizations need to think of sleep as essential, not negotiable. We should also stop convincing ourselves that successful people don’t have time to sleep. Highly successful leaders like Jeff Bezos, Arianna Huffington, Barak Obama and Bill Gates all report that they prioritize sleep. Arianna Huffington even wrote The Sleep Revolution, and her website has some great sleep resources.

Many organizations are still working mostly virtually because of the pandemic, which adds another layer to the temptation of overwork and lack of sleep. Research shows that most employees work more hours when they work from home—the flexibility offered by working virtually can cause employees to struggle to disconnect. Working from home can have its benefits (no commute) yet can also bring additional challenges and stress like having to manage interrupts from family or a lack of boundaries.

Setting boundaries is an important part of working successfully in a virtual environment. It’s important to manage your energy so you don’t become overworked and burnt-out. Having a specific end time to your day, taking frequent breaks and getting physical exercise are important for managing your energy and productivity.

Having a productive day actually begins the night before. Creating a nightly ritual to adequately unwind from the stresses of the day and getting enough sleep will make a huge difference in the day ahead.

This past Sunday, my husband and I got back into our nightly routine of reading before bed and going to sleep earlier. It took a couple of nights to make up for the week before, but within two days, I saw a huge difference in my performance and focus.

Sleep should be a success habit that leaders prioritize personally and encourage at work. If we have more executives and leaders encouraging healthy boundaries and adequate sleep, everyone benefits.

Laurie Maddalena, MBA, CPCC, PHR, is a certified executive coach, leadership consultant and founder of CUES Supplier member Envision Excellence LLC in the Washington, D.C., area. Her mission is to create exceptional cultures by teaching leaders how to be exceptional. Maddalena facilitates management and executive training programs and team-building sessions and speaks at leadership events. Prior to starting her business, she was an HR executive at a $450 million credit union. Contact her at 240.605.7940 or lmaddalena@envisionexcellence.net.

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