• Robb G. Best

Nightmare Boss: The Dangers of Sleep-Deprived Leadership

Let’s say you’re a sleep pro. You’ve learned the key role of REM cycles in encoding new memories, and the troubling statistics linking tired driving with automobile accidents. You’ve taken steps to log your 7 to 9 hours every night, and are enjoying the benefits of a healthier, more energetic you. But there is still a way that sleep-deprivation could be shaping—and harming—your day-to-day life.

You may be sleeping enough. But what about your boss? What about your boss’s boss?

After all, if it’s unwise to operate heavy machinery on a sleep debt, it’s surely a bad idea to operate an entire business, with millions of dollars—not to mention the careers of real-life human beings on the line. However, it seems to be all too common. In a recent survey of more than 180 business leaders, 43% reported getting insufficient sleep at least four nights a week. In other words, for four out of ten respondents at the top of the corporate ladder, those unrested nights are more common than not.

When we list the attributes of a good leader, “a refreshed prefrontal cortex” likely doesn’t make the list. Yet, without a thorough nightly recharge of this region, higher thinking suffers, and the result can be some classic Nightmare Boss behavior:

Low attention span. The connection between will power and sleep is well-known at this point, and that means a habitually tired leader may struggle with any activity that requires extended focus (such as reading and internalizing an entire memo, or staying mentally present in a meeting).

Murky strategic thinking. Since the prefrontal cortex governs long-term goal-setting, a boss who doesn’t get enough Z’s might be noticeably more impulsive in their judgment calls—for instance, dropping an important vendor due to some petty perceived slight, or promoting an unqualified person based on what seems to be a whim.

Temper tantrums. If you’ve ever observed a toddler who skipped their daily nap, you have some insight into the link between slumber and mood. While we should be careful not to make too many excuses for cruel behavior, some studies have shown that sleep-deprived people are more likely to verbally abuse their underlings.

Unfortunately, our culture tends to make excuses for powerful people who display unconventional or even unpleasant behavior. An absent-minded, impetuous fry cook is unfit to work at McDonald’s, and yet those same qualities might feed into a CEO’s reputation as an “eccentric genius.” When we hear about some visionary leader only sleeping for four to five hours a night, we sometimes even view this as a sign of their superior mental powers, and yet studies show that staying awake for 20 consecutive hours impairs one’s mental faculties to a degree analogous to a .1 blood alcohol content—legally drunk, in the U.S.

What can you do if you suspect your boss—and by extension, your entire workplace experience—could benefit from better sleep habits? The answer may depend on your individual relationship with your individual supervisor. If they respond well to feedback, maybe share a thinkpiece or two about the benefits of slumber. If they’re too cranky and muddled to take a look at their own lifestyle, it may be time for a wakeup call of your own, to start updating that resume.

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