By Tim Smithies and Dr Ian C Dunican
When we think about sleep in the context of work, many people will think about workplace health and safety, managing shiftwork and specifically fatigue management. This is because there is a paucity of research related to such topics [1-3]. However, our thinking should not be limited to the people working on the ground regarding sleep loss. Leaders get tired too, and it is well established that fatigue resulting from sleep loss can negatively influence decision-making. As an extreme example, managers had “minimal sleep” the night before they decided to override warnings and unsafely launch the U.S. Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986, resulting in the death of all seven crew members . Beyond poor decision-making, however, how does sleep interact with a leader’s ability to lead?
This blog will cover seven research articles exploring the link between sleep and leadership abilities. Most of these articles have come from management research or organisational psychology, though one article examines leadership behaviour in a military context .
Firstly, how do leaders tend to sleep, and what are their general attitudes/ beliefs about sleep? Svetieva and colleagues  explored this topic by surveying almost 400 senior professionals and leaders across 38 countries. Across this population, the average self-reported sleep duration was 6 hours and 36 minutes, while the modal (most common) sleep duration for high-performing executives was only six hours! These leaders recognised that this was almost an hour less than they needed. However, it must be stressed that self-reported sleep duration is almost always overestimated (usually by 20 – 30 minutes) – so these amounts are well of those considered healthy for most adults. Perhaps more concerning than these numbers are some of the attitudes shared by these executives and business leaders about sleep; a quarter of responders agreed that sacrificing sleep is necessary to get ahead in their work, and about a third of leaders agreed that high performers do not need much sleep. These sentiments are scary but should not be overly surprising, given the all-too-common sayings “sleep is for the weak” and “money never sleeps”.
So, if leaders are not sleeping enough, how does this impact their ability to lead? While there is little literature on this compared to worker safety, the work that is out there doesn’t paint a pretty picture for this scenario. Some studies exploring sleep loss and leadership have often done so within the lens of the Ego Depletion Model; this model essentially suggests that self-control is a finite resource that is depleted when we use it, and when we sleep less, we tend to run on empty for this resource a lot more. It is through this ego depletion that reduced sleep quality (but interestingly, not sleep quantity) tends to lead to more abusive supervisory behaviour, according to data from Barnes and colleagues . Importantly, this ‘abusive behaviour’ led to less work engagement for businesses and other organisations. In a separate study, individuals who slept less experienced greater ego depletion, which led them to more unethical behaviours, measured both subjectively (rated by supervisors) and objectively (higher likelihood of lying about test results in order to gain a prize) .
Sleep loss also seems to degrade leadership abilities through emotional changes. For example, a 2016 study found that individuals who slept under 5 hours (compared to ~7 hours) gave less charismatic speeches . This reduction in presence was driven by less of what the authors called deep acting; this essentially means the ability to change one’s emotional state to fit a purpose (making yourself happy, as opposed to faking a smile). Furthermore, a 2017 study on 109 business leaders found that poorer sleep quality and quantity was associated with poorer emotional and social competence , while a separate study conducted in the same year found that the less a leader slept, the more hostile their followers found them, leading to a poorer overall relationship quality .
Seemingly, tired leaders tend to be boring, grumpy (and potentially abusive) leaders, with poor emotional intelligence and substandard relationships with those they lead, and with a higher chance of making ethically questionable decisions. This is all on top of the known adverse effects of sleep loss on decision-making, which is of obvious importance for leaders making big decisions. Knowing all this, what should be done about it? How can we avoid adopting these bad characteristics?
The first step would be to disown the cancerous’ sleep is for the weak’ mindset pervasive among leaders in all walks of life. For example, one respondent in Nowack’s  research stated,
“In a macho leadership culture, admitting you need sleep is weakness”.
Whereas the adverse effects of poor sleep are characteristics of a weak leader. Very specifically on the topic of ‘weak’ leadership, Olsen and colleagues  found acute sleep restriction (5 nights of 2-2.5hrs sleep) to lead naval officers to adopt “passive-avoidant” leadership styles, avoiding challenges/difficulty and just waiting for mistakes to happen, instead of proactive and inspiring leadership approaches. The results strongly suggest that while sleep does not make you a weak leader, dismissing sleep does.
If you are a leader in any walk of life who understands the importance of sleep in your role but is struggling to get sufficient quality sleep consistently, there are steps you can take to remedy this. Ensuring your sleep hygiene is in shape would be the first point of call; this includes ensuring that your bedroom is cool and dark, you’re avoiding stimulating activities such as reading and responding to emails at least half an hour before bed, and you are avoiding caffeine 6-8 hours out from bedtime. If issues persist, it would be recommended to see a sleep physician, as an underlying sleep disorder may be preventing progress.
At Melius Consulting we provide educational programs for leaders to understand the importance of sleep and more importantly how to implement specific strategies and tactics to get more sleep opportunity and to improve the quality of sleep. These educational programs can be combined with personalised support with one of our Principal Consultants to support personalised action plans and to deal with the nuance of their role and personal circumstances.
- Maisey, G., et al., Fatigue Risk Management Systems Diagnostic Tool: Validation of an organisational assessment tool for shiftwork organisations. Safety and Health at Work, 2022.
- Benzo, R.M., et al., A Comparison of Occupational Physical Activity and Sedentary Behavior Patterns of Nurses Working 12-Hour Day and Night Shifts. International Journal of Nursing Studies Advances, 2021: p. 100028.
- Roach, G.D., et al., Controlling fatigue risk in safety-critical workplaces: A summary of selected papers from the 9th International Conference on Managing Fatigue in Transportation, Resources and Health. Accid Anal Prev, 2016.
- Rogers, W.P., Presidential Commission on the Space ShuttleChallenger Accident. 1986: Washington, DC.
- Olsen, O.K., et al., The effect of sleep deprivation on leadership behaviour in military officers: an experimental study. Journal of Sleep Research, 2016. 25(6): p. 683-689.
- Svetieva, E., C. Clerkin, and M.N. Ruderman, Can’t sleep, won’t sleep: Exploring leaders’ sleep patterns, problems, and attitudes. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 2017. 69: p. 80-97.
- Barnes, C.M., et al., “You Wouldn’t Like Me When I’m Sleepy”: Leaders’ Sleep, Daily Abusive Supervision, and Work Unit Engagement. Academy of Management Journal, 2014. 58(5): p. 1419-1437.
- Barnes, C.M., et al., Lack of sleep and unethical conduct. Organisational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 2011. 115(2): p. 169-180.
- Barnes, C.M., et al., Too tired to inspire or be inspired: Sleep deprivation and charismatic leadership. The Journal of applied psychology, 2016. 101(8): p. 1191-1199.
- Nowack, K., Sleep, emotional intelligence, and interpersonal effectiveness: Natural bedfellows. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 2017. 69: p. 66-79.
- Guarana, C.L. and C.M. Barnes, Lack of sleep and the development of leader-follower relationships over time. Organisational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 2017. 141: p. 57-73.