How Sleep Deprivation Affects Your Leadership Skills

How Sleep Deprivation Affects Your Leadership Skills

If your New Year has started with a new role, or just a commitment to be a better leader than you have been before, don't discount the important role that sleep plays in improving (or not) your leadership skills. 

Experts agree that even one hour of sleep less than what you need, let alone three or four, can seriously affect your decision-making skills, and not for the better. So much for our sleep-machismo culture, where leadership is actually associated with burning the midnight oil, making the actual science somewhat counterintuitive.

Putting aside cultural myth, multiple studies have directly examined the link between sleep deprivation and leadership skills. Whether you’re in charge of leading a nation or a few people at your company, take note!

A major finding of studies looking at the relationship between sleep and leadership is that sleep-deprived leaders are less charismatic and inspiring. People reliably rate under-slept speakers as less charismatic, even when the text of the speech is exactly the same, suggesting that fatigue affects your ability to speak convincingly.

There’s a lot more than speech-giving at risk. Sleep affects your ability to read other people’s emotions accurately, as well as regulate your own. Imagine dealing with an employee or a client while wrestling with a severely hampered ability to read and respond to social cues. That’s exactly what’s happening when you go to work without getting enough rest.

Let’s break this down to the neuroscience. The part of your brain that allows you to perform complex tasks, like managing a group of people or staying on top of a long to-do list, is the neocortex—in particular, the prefrontal cortex. The neocortex is the most recent development in the evolution of our brains, and the first to take a hit when you don’t get enough sleep.

While other parts of your brain, like the evolutionarily older visual and motor cortexes, also suffer from sleep deprivation, higher-order brain functions or "executive functions" suffer to a much greater degree. That makes sense, since it’s in your body’s best interest to remember how to breathe and see over preserving your executive functions, but it’s still bad news for those of us concerned with organizational leadership.

What’s a busy person to do? Everyone has to skip a few hours of sleep occasionally, but if at all possible, work seven to nine hours of sleep into your daily schedule. Giving up sleep may seem like the efficient solution to a great many problems, but that’s just not the case. Sleeping well will make you a more effective leader, whether you’re managing a group of people or just trying to shepherd yourself through the day.

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