Sleep that Sabotages Leadership

Today’s HBR recommendation, “Your Abusive Boss Is Probably an Insomniac,” is a summary of findings from a study published in the Academy of Management Journal. The researchers studied 88 leaders and their teams to find out if the leaders’ sleep habits affected performance at work. The result?…you guessed it, but there’s a twist:

We found that daily leader sleep quality, but not quantity, influenced the leader’s self-control and abusive supervision behavior, and ultimately the degree to which his or her subordinates were engaged in their work that day. It is not clear why sleep quantity did not have the effect we predicted, but the effect for sleep quality was very clear; a given leader engaged in more jerky boss behavior after a poor night of sleep than a good night of sleep, and this influenced his or her subordinates to disengage from work.


Photo by Odi Mitch. Link to photo.

So, we should pay attention to how well we sleep in addition to how much we sleep. And it turns out from the study that the poor sleep quality didn’t just impair the leader, it affected subordinate behavior as well:

Perhaps what is most interesting about these findings is that leader sleep influenced subordinate outcomes. Although most of us have some appreciation that our own sleep influences our own behaviors and outcomes, not many people would expect someone else’s sleep to influence one’s own behavior. But this is precisely what we found; leader sleep quality influenced subordinate work engagement. Thus, if leaders want their subordinates to be truly engaged, they should start by looking at their own sleep.

What About Military Leaders?

Unquestionably, the military is a sleep-challenged profession. Combat operations and intense training events provide ample opportunities to sacrifice sleep. We’re good at driving-on despite fatigue (to a point…). But we have lots of leaders who also figure out a way to short themselves of a good night’s rest in garrison, when no bullets are flying. (I’ve seen that movie plenty of times…heck, I’ve starred in that movie!)

But if sleep quality/quantity affects team behavior, shouldn’t we consider it lack of discipline not to arrive at the point of departure in a peak state of performance?

We leaders need to take a hard look at our own physiological states. It’s cool to be “the rough commander who has a bit of an edge and a temper from time to time”…until you start destroying the very thing you’re tasked to be responsible for. (Sutton’s #12 comes to mind.)

Leaders carry more psychological burden than other members and need to shape their environment to maximize performance. Establish wake-up criteria so your people know when to rouse you. Set a cut-off time for work-related activity, so you can relax your body and mind before lights-out. Put some effort into assessing your lifestyle activities like sleep time, hydration, caffeine intake, fitness, and food. They all play a part in shaping your work behavior.


See my August 2014 post, “Getting It Done” – 16 Resources for Preventing Distraction, Maximizing Productivity, and Prioritizing with Purpose, for a long list of productivity topics, including sleep.

Also go to Michael Hyatt’s podcast on sleep and productivity.

Finally, the HBR article mentions this Huffington Post article on sleep quality.

Questions for Leaders

  • How could your improve your discipline in preparing yourself for peak physiological performance?
  • Does your team know when they should call or wake you with important information?
  • How are you teaching your organization’s leaders to be intentional about their own performance?

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