Sleep Deprivation and Leadership
The U.S. Navy made headlines of the wrong kind last year when two of its warships collided at night with slow-moving freighters. The idea that a nimble destroyer or frigate could not easily miss such a large obstacle befuddled many, until the circumstances became clearer. The Navy had a bad habit of pushing its officers to extreme endurance levels, into situations where they had the conn in severely sleep-deprived states. The tradition of the service, which goes back to the heyday of the Royal Navy, demands that its officers exhibit a complete lack of any need to sleep to deliver peak performance. This was proved disastrously wrong.
Leadership Ability is Harmed by Lack of Sleep
“Research has proven that sleep deprivation can take a heavy toll on our ability to make sound decisions, with potentially disastrous outcomes,” notes a brief from a team of researchers at Washington State University (WSU).
Studies by members of this WSU research team have found that cognitive flexibility is particularly affected by sleep deprivation, much more so than most other cognitive processes involved in decision-making.
Why is that a critical insight? Because cognitive flexibility is considered a key executive function, as highlighted by this textbook definition of the term:
“Cognitive flexibility has been described as the mental ability to switch between thinking about two different concepts, and to think about multiple concepts simultaneously. Cognitive flexibility is usually described as one of the executive functions.”
Our clients are not asked to captain billion-dollar warships, but they do have to steer multi-million-dollar teams and operations. They need to understand that operating on little sleep may win them a few day-to-day kudos from bosses, but that their long-term success will be threatened. Skipping sleep reduces your ability to achieve peak performance. That’s a career threat!
Sleep Deprivation is Not Helpful in a Crisis
The WSU study is going to get increasingly granular about the chemicals within the brain that drive its ability to control attention. And the results of this multi-million-dollar research are years away. All we need to remember is that a lack of sleep interferes enough with our brain’s chemistry that it reduces its capacity for creative, nimble thought when stressed.
What could cause the stress? A sudden change in professional circumstance; a client with a relationship-threatening problem; a project facing unexpected turmoil from something out of left field.
When we are fresh, we handle these situations with all the creative skill we possess. When we have been burning the midnight oil, working 24/7, or pursuing “excellence” through the brute force of working 80 hours a week, we lose our cognitive flexibility and respond much less well to these events.
We have been beating the drum about the need for employees to get enough rest, take evenings and weekends off, and to take all their vacation time to ensure that they recharge and reset their brains and contribute high-quality outcomes.
- Why should the idea of getting a full 8 hours of sleep make you feel guilty?
- Why is it a badge of honor to operate on five hours of sleep per night (or less)?
The reality is, while you may be able to handle rote tasks at nearly the quality and quantity that you could when fresh, if faced with any kind of stressful situation where you have to think clearly, ingest and assess new information quickly, and make strong decisions that obtain high-quality outcomes, the quality of your work will decline. You could get lucky, making the right decision by chance as you fight through the fog of sleep deprivation, but relying on luck is a poor battle plan.
Get better organized, compartmentalize your work so that you can decompress before sleep each evening, and set aside the mindset that “tough guys and gals don’t need sleep.”
If you need help tackling your “lack of sleep habit,” have a chat with Brooke or Dave. They have plenty of ideas that can help.