Lack of Sleep Is a Leadership Issue - IEDP
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Lack of Sleep Is a Leadership Issue

Neuroscience reveals the effects of sleep deprivation on performance

Thursday 14 April 2016


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BRAIN GAIN: When Shakespeare can’t quiet his mind about the lady that he loves despite his physical tiredness, he does at least manage a Sonnet about it.


Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed
The dear repose for limbs with travel tired;
But then begins a journey in my head
To work my mind, when body’s work’s expir’d:


Lo! thus, by day my limbs, by night my mind,
For thee, and for myself, no quiet find.


It looks as if the modern executive just has to grin and bear it. But that’s not good. Lack of sleep is becoming quite a leadership issue.


The more the brain is required to be managing new knowledge fast, rather than simply dealing with repetitive and familiar situations, the more does sleep deprivation put a leader at risk of functioning well below par. A 16-17 hour day makes the brain function as if it were at about the legal level of alcohol intake, say Nick van Dam and Els van der Helm in the McKinsey Quarterly this February. 20 hours without sleep – working, say, until 1a.m. – has the brain functioning in much the same way as a person who meets the U.S. legal level of drunkenness, apparently.


That can’t be good either.


In April 2016 the Royal Society for Public Health published a report in which 2,000 adults had been polled, reported Haroon Siddique in the Guardian. April 1st may not be the best day to publish facts, but the results across a much larger population than McKinsey’s indicated a wide-spread sense that people were feeling they got insufficient sleep.

One of the side effects of having too little sleep is that it increases the craving for addictive eating. In a University of Chicago sleep deprivation study described by Guardian Science Editor Ian Sample, identical meals were given to two groups, one of whom had an average 7.5 hours of sleep a night and the other had 4 hours 11 minutes.

After four nights the subjects were offered a range of snacks. “The sleep-deprived felt a strong urge to binge on fatty foods... even when they had eaten a solid meal only two hours earlier.” Looking at which neurochemicals might be involved, it seemed that sleep deprivation elevated naturally-occurring substances that are much like the chemicals in cannabis. So both comfort/pleasure-seeking and reduced control seem to have a real effect on sleep loss.

The McKinsey report, surveying 196 business leaders, found that nearly half said they did not get enough sleep on at least four nights of the week, two thirds said they were generally dissatisfied with how much sleep they got, and 83% said their organisations did not spend enough effort on educating leaders about the importance of sleep.

Leadership depends especially on the functioning of the frontal, decision-making regions of the brain and the capacity to integrate data from the two hemispheres, where the left deals with what is known and the right deals with the barely-known.  Impairing this region of the brain with poor sleep and lowered energy supply – because under deprived conditions the available energy goes to keep basic functions working – is a severe handicap to effective functioning.

One very interesting aspect of leadership effectiveness is the way a leader’s gaze is tracked by followers. In an elegant series of studies Marco Tullio Liuzza, now at Stockholm University and colleagues then at the University of Rome tracked how adherents and opponents of Berlusconi responded to his gaze when he was riding high in popularity and when he was fallen and disgraced. They showed significant differences in attentional patterns between the high and low power situations and between adherents and opponents.1

As is well known, the shining eyes that are generated by the attachment neurochemical oxytocin are much more engaging than the appearance of a stress-related cortisol-induced dead-fish-eye look. So it may not be a generalization too far to suggest from the Liuzza studies that the eye-appearance consequences of sleep deprivation might result in a significant lowering of a leader’s perceived effectiveness – his or her capacity to energise others in particular. The McKinsey report refers to studies that show that “…people who have not had enough sleep are less likely to fully trust someone else...” The reverse might also be true.

What to do about it? For those who respond to data and gadgets, have a look at HeartMath UK. The capacity to ‘switch off’ at night and improve the quality of sleep is something that HeartMath have been pursuing for a number of years, and know some interesting ways of tackling it, they also know a good deal about the way the heart manages itself during sleep that’s good and sleep that feels hardly beneficial at all. See

Or just give yourself a short every-evening treat that changes the way you go to sleep.  Fifteen minutes of a Bernard Cornwell book and the comfort of a warm drink might alter the chemistry of a stressful day, as might a gentle read of the works of Jane Austen, starting with the first and reading all right through.  Sink into them.  For anyone who objects to such an idea because that’s just making the brain work when it’s supposed to be going to sleep, try it as a means of getting different brain chemicals going.  There’s not much better than going to sleep with a quiet smile on one’s lips.

1 See Porciello, Liuzza, et al:  “Fortunes and misfortunes of political leaders reflected in the eyes of their electors”.  Experimental Brain Research, published on-line 25 November 2015.

This is the latest in a series of articles from Dr Paul Brown, Faculty Professor, Organizational Neuroscience, Monarch Business School Switzerland. Paul was was previously Visiting Professor in Organizational Neuroscience at London South Bank University and in Individual and Organizational Psychology, the Nottingham Law School, UK. Until recently based in Laos, where he was part of the National Science Council in the Office of the Prime Minister, he now lives in Vietnam from where as Honorary Chairman of the Vietnam Consulting Group he maintains an international consulting practice and is Senior Adviser to the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, Hanoi. Neuroscience for Leadership, co-authored by Paul with Dr Tara Swart and Lady Kitty Chisholm, the first tile in a new series published by Palgrave Macmillan in association with IEDP, recently won first prize in the Practical Manager Category at the Chartered Management Institute’s Management Book of the Year competition.

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