Do successful leaders really need the least sleep?

As someone who usually gets by on a four to five hour of shuteye a night and takes the odd ten hour snooze to repay my ‘sleep debt’, sleeping regularly for seven to nine hours daily as recommended by the Sleep Foundation often sounds like a fairy tale.

While research is inconclusive on what the ‘magic number’ of sleep hours required is, there is a strong body of evidence that links sleep deprivation with negative outcomes, both personal and work performance.

However, despite this evidence, many are still getting by with less than five hours of sleep a night. In a hilarious but insightful take on how women can literally sleep their way to the top, Arianna Huffington remarked how, for many men, sleep deprivation has become a symbol of virility.

A close look at popular figures does indeed reveal a trend:

  • A (perhaps) misguided professor at Georgetown mentioned that the most successful men need the least sleep which led to Bill Clinton picking up the practice of sleeping just five or six hours a night;
  • Leonardo Da Vinci was known to have followed a sleep schedule that consisted of 20 minute naps every four hours;
  • Thomas Edison once said “sleep is a criminal waste of time, inherited from our cave days“;
  • Nikola Tesla claimed to get by on 2 to 3 hours a day; and
  • Donald Trump credited his success to sleeping only three or four hours each night, and was quoted “How does somebody that’s sleeping 12 and 14 hours a day compete with someone that’s sleeping three or four?”.

However, some notable women also took a similar stance:

  • The late Margaret Thatcher once said that “sleeping is for wimps“, and got by on 4 hours a day;
  • Marissa Mayer at Yahoo! gets by on 4-6 hours a night; and
  • Indra Nooyi of Pepsi gets by on 4 hours a day

and so on…

Do the successful really need the least sleep?

While research is again inconclusive on whether all short sleepers are high achievers, for a small group of people, sleep is indeed a waste of time. These people, 1% to 3% of the population, are labelled the sleepless elite.

However, the article also cautioned that only 5 people out of a hundred really do need five or six hours of sleep a night, and the rest end up chronically sleep deprived. I myself, perhaps am one of the deluded 95%. And this is no laughing matter.

You may recall that Peter Ghin wrote a blog post about investment bankers and their bodies, and how the ‘norm’ of working for these bankers – long hours, connected to work in more ways than one, and ultra-competitive environment among others – was literally destroying their health. This is consistent with findings from a study on the social construction of sleep and work in the British media, which also revealed that sleep is often a neglected component of our lives, “which is too easily sacrificed to the demands of the 24/7 society, long hours culture…”

So… how does sleep go hand in hand with leading?

Researchers from the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) argued that lack of sleep is a leadership liability, and remarked that “the science is clear: lack of sleep compromises brain processes and skills needed for effective leadership”. The researchers argue that sleep-deprived leaders “don’t get the full opportunity to process and organize information”, and as such cannot perform at their peak level.

We know that sleep-deprived workers are more at risk of unsafe driving and are akin to being impaired in cognitive and motor performance equivalent to legally prescribed levels of alcohol intoxication.

Durmer and Finges also reported “Deficits in daytime performance due to sleep loss are experienced universally and associated with a significant social, financial, and human cost”.

So, while there may be anecdotal evidence that the ‘elite’ need the least sleep, the evidence on the other side of the fence is overwhelmingly heavier. I can go on and list every other sleep deprivation study out there, but I think we all get the picture.

Sleeping and leading, not only rhyme – they actually go hand in hand.

It is therefore no wonder that a number of highly creative and leading companies in their fields, such as Google, CISCO, and the Huffington Post are ‘sleep friendly’, and have even introduced sleeping pods and sleeping awareness programs in their workplaces. Dr Jessica Payne was quoted in the CCL article:

“We have a long way to go before sleep is valued as much as it should be,” says Payne. “But sleep is easy; it comes naturally; it’s free. Smart companies—and wise leaders—will start to harness it.”

So, maybe I will nudge the managers at the Centre to purchase a sleeping pod…or alternatively, just submit this article, and go home earlier to greet my bed.

Take this quick survey and tell us what you think.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *