Our next Camp in February 2025 will be the best yet, REGISTER NOW!

Why Sleep Is Crucial For Good Leadership

John J. Fenton-Former Forbes Councils Member

OK, I admit it. I’m guilty of this (or at least I was). It almost cost me my life. What is it? The notion that I didn’t need much sleep to be an effective leader.

“I can handle it,” I used to say. I was burning the candle at both ends. The result was a weakened heart and a hasty ambulance trip to the hospital where doctors feared my heart would stop permanently. Luckily, it didn’t, and I learned that in a matter of a few minutes, everything — I mean everything —can change.

My advice: be the hero for your health.

Recently, one of my CEO clients admitted that she wasn’t getting enough sleep. She’s an amazing and caring leader, driven to succeed, who juggles family and work. To her, less sleep was justifiable. When I asked her about her sleep habits, she responded with something like, “It’s OK. As we get older, we don’t need as much sleep.”

Not true. What is true is that we are all getting older, and as we age, the negative effects of not getting enough sleep can lead to health issues like Alzheimer’s, heart disease, diabetes and much more.

I help CEOs be at their best, and quite honestly, with insufficient sleep, being at your best is nearly impossible. We can easily fool ourselves into believing we don’t need more sleep. The research says otherwise.

From my experience, to be at our best, we need to be in a frame of mind that is open, creative and forward-thinking. When I am at my best, I am clear and focused, open to possibilities and solutions. My emotional IQ is higher, my intuitive strength is enhanced, and my decision making is better. Getting enough rest is an essential component.

In an article for The Guardian written by Rachel Cooke, Dr. Matthew Walker, a leading neuroscientist and director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley, claims that the shorter you sleep, the shorter you live. Walker believes that in our society, sleep is strongly associated with weakness and laziness. It’s almost embarrassing to admit that we like to sleep eight or nine hours. Working with less sleep is viewed as a badge of honor.

When we were younger, it was easy to work longer hours, even pull all-nighters. I know because I used to do it. Just like athletes, when we are younger, our bodies and brains can take the abuse, punishment and stress, and recover quickly. However, less sleep means more stress. As we get older, the effects of repeated stress take their toll. We just don’t realize it as quickly or as tangibly.

In professional sports, the margin of difference between world-class and has-been can be less than a second slower, or the fraction of a putt missed. It’s visible, recognizable, yet not so easily discernible in business or in personal health. As a collegiate athlete, I was used to pushing myself beyond my physical limits, even when I was injured.

You don’t need to push yourself to be a great (or even just a good) leader. You need to listen to your body more.

OK, so you have an active mind, and sleeping well is difficult. You have a lot of projects or initiatives critical to the success of your business, and there are times when you just can’t shut it off. Maybe you’re a worrier. Maybe you’re under stress. I get it.

According to Matthew Walker, in his book, Why We Sleep, anything less than seven hours of sleep is sleep deprivation. Insufficient sleep is a “public health epidemic.” Walker’s work and that of others have identified strong links to Alzheimer’s disease, heart attacks, cancer and other diseases.

Our bodies have an amazing ability to heal, and while we sleep, our brains in effect wash themselves to get rid of harmful proteins through the glymphatic system and glial cells in the brain. In effect, our brains regularly “take out the trash”,” and this system is 10 times more active when we sleep.

To sum it up, we live busy lives. Our brains are constantly at work. Just like your body needs rest, so too does your brain. Sufficient sleep of at least seven hours is good for your health. And I firmly believe from my own experience that feeling and being healthy in mind, body and spirit is vital to living, leading and being at your best.

Being effective in business and in life involves us looking after ourselves. If you recall we discuss this in the personal development session on day 3. This is critical.