Excellent Leaders Need Sleep

Recently, in the United States, we switched to Daylight Savings Time, which means that we moved our clocks forward one hour, and people struggled to adjust. This practice which causes some annual pain might come to an end because on March 15 the U.S. Senate approved a bill called the “Sunshine Protection Act” to make Daylight Savings Time permanent in 2023 with one of the benefits cited as reducing seasonal depression. The bill must still get the U.S. House of Representatives’ approval before the President can sign it into law.

Every year when we move our clocks forward one hour in March, it takes me a couple of days to acclimate to the time change, for my body to get into a new rhythm of wake and sleep times.

Because I enjoy when Daylight Savings Time ends each fall, I haven’t yet figured out how I feel about it being permanent. Some good friends of mine had a dog and they fed him using an automated feeder that dispensed the appropriate amount of food every day at the same time. When the clocks would go back one hour (in the fall) they realized that their dog was sitting in front of the feeder for over an hour waiting for his food to drop. Of course, they quickly adjusted the timing on the feeder, but I bet the dog would have been happy to have permanent Daylight Savings time so that he always knew when the food would arrive.

All this got me thinking about a module on Sleep and Brain Health in a course I took last year from the Neuroscience School, led by Dr. Irena O’Brien. This particular module was one of my favorites in the course because it validated some of my beliefs about sleep and gave me scientifically backed data to use when coaching leaders.

Knowing if you are a “lark” or “owl” can optimize your leadership

Dr. O’Brien helped me understand that while humans are diurnal (meaning we are daytime creatures), they differ on whether they prefer morning activity (larks), or evening activity (owls). This preference is partially influenced by genetics. This learning validated my belief that I am more effective if I get up and get started on tasks that require brainpower early in the day. I have always been a lark, or a morning person, preferring to get up early and start getting things done. I am more productive in the mornings and seldom need to set an alarm to be sure that I wake up (unless we’ve just moved the clock forward one hour). Being a morning person though, means that I have trouble staying up late. If I know that I am going to have to be up very late, I try to take a nap during the day.

Being armed with the knowledge about what part of the day you are most productive is helpful because it enables you to schedule tasks that require brainpower for your preferred time of the day, when your brain is fired up and ready to perform. You can schedule tasks that are routine or don’t require as much mental acuity for the lower energy parts of the day for you. If you know you are going to have to go against your natural preference, neuroscience studies have shown that napping (ideally ten minutes sleep time) can significantly enhance learning and memory.

Having this knowledge is helpful when leading a team as well. It is important to share that self-awareness with your team. For example, because I am a lark, I would often go into the office very early so that I could be productive before the busy part of the day kicked in. As leaders, what we do is always observed by someone and my employees noticed. Some of them also started coming in earlier because they believed that by my coming in early that I expected the same from them. Once I realized this and communicated to the team why I was coming in early and that I did not expect them to, my productivity increased, and my team was relieved (the owls most of all I imagine).

Sleep is key for brain health

Sleep is important for us to have healthy and optimally functioning brains. In the same neuroscience course mentioned above, I learned that sleep contributes significantly to the processes of learning and memory and is linked to neural restoration and physiological maintenance. Sleep loss on the other hand is linked to impairments in cognitive and emotional functions. Those facts may seem kind of obvious and you could probably come up with multiple examples from your own life where that played out. Restricted sleep affects mental flexibility, attention span, automatic responses and alertness. In addition, as sleep deprivation accumulates across days, our performance becomes progressively worse over time. Chronic sleep loss may even lead to brain injury. Simply put, when we don’t get enough sleep bad stuff happens in our brains and in our bodies.

As leaders that means we have a responsibility to get the amount of sleep necessary to lead. The recommended amount of sleep for healthy adults is between 7 and 9 hours, although for some people it could be one hour on either side of that range. For example, my optimal amount of sleep (unless I am sick) is 6.5 to 7 hours. Getting optimal sleep affects the brain and because the brain and body are inextricably linked, what affects one affects the other. Knowing your optimal amount of sleep is important so that you know when you aren’t getting enough sleep to keep your brain and body healthy, and you can take action to correct it.

Awareness is the first step to functioning optimally

Knowing the facts about the effects of sleep on brain health is only the first step to stay healthy and function optimally. We cannot perform a tour best when we are not getting enough sleep. Here are some simple steps you can take immediately:

1)     Understand whether you are a “lark” or an “owl” and align your schedule to optimize performing complex tasks to your preferred time.

2)     Determine the optimal amount of sleep your body and brain need to function optimally. The only way I know of to do this is to track your sleep habits over time to determine how much sleep allows you to function at your best. I tracked my sleep over a 6-month period to determine my optimal timing is 6.5 hours of sleep.

3)     If you are experiencing sleep deprivation, identify actions you can take that will help you get more sleep (aligning complex and routine tasks to your preferred rhythm, taking naps, scheduling sleep and waking times to meet your needs, etc.)

4)     Implement new habits that support getting optimal amounts of sleep, so you can keep your brain and body healthy and promote peak functioning. There has been a lot of research done on different methods to help people get the sleep they need and there are tips available from the Sleep Foundation.

Excellent leaders have healthy brains

Leaders are people first, and if they are not healthy, they cannot bring their best self to lead others and set a good example. At Seasons Leadership, we believe in development of the whole person, including physical and mental health. If you would like to learn more about sleep and brain health, you can check out: www.neuroscienceschool.com and learn about sleep tips at: https://sleepfoundation.org/.

For more insights on how to be the best leader you can visit www.seasonsleadership.com and checkout these other posts on our blog the Almanac:

Self-Affirmation and the Magic of a “Love Me Drawer”

Recognizing “Monkey Business” Helps Defining Work Boundaries

A Winning Mindset Takes Perspective and Planning

Debbie Collard has 30+ years of leadership experience. She served on the National Baldrige Foundation Board of Directors for 15 years, including as the first female Chair of the Board. She is an iPEC- and ICF-Certified Professional Coach and co-author of The Making of a World- Class Organization, a practical guide for leaders to engage employees and increase profitability. debbiecollard.com

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