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Sleep for Superpowers. Or, How to Create a Toxic Leader

Updated: Nov 25, 2019

"Sleep is the cousin of death." - Nas, 1994.

Sleep less, accomplish more. This seems like a reasonable solution when “there’s not enough time in the day.” Contrary to the classic bar from the great 90’s poet Nas, sleep and death are not kin. In fact, Sleep is more like the father of peak performance.

The S3 is feared. The S3 grinds. The S3 is the overlord of the operations salt mine. The S3 is a jerk?

The brigade and battalion operations officer (S3) occupy a notoriously challenging position. Given the responsibility of the position and the implications of performance as an S3 on future job opportunities, the caricature of the S3 is red-faced and angry; they maintain Hefty sized garbage bags under their eyes; their foot is held “gently” on the neck of a very disheveled lieutenant. In reality, maybe the S3 is just determined and quite under-slept. Unfortunately, even slight sleep deprivation creates the potential for some very negative leader outcomes.

For example, a 2014 study of daily leader sleep quality shows that leaders with poor sleep engage in abusive behavior at work. Not surprisingly, the same study showed that this sort of behavior actually results in decreased productivity and engagement from subordinate units. This counters the notion that it’s simply in the S3’s nature to be a jerk. Maybe the low sleep battle rhythm actually predisposes the S3 to a jerk-like disposition. It’s easy to make an example of the S3 because most Soldiers have experienced an operations officer that personified tired and irritable, but insufficient sleep is actually every leader’s problem.

Poor sleep. Every leader’s enemy.

Great leaders inspire others to perform at the peak of their potential. Inspiring others might be described as one of many components that contribute to the “art” of leadership, but inspiration is only part of the equation. The science of peak performance is also a critical component of the equation -- a component that is rarely explored alongside leadership. Research in the field of peak performance shows an ideal physiological and psychological profile associated with peak performance. To truly maximize potential, leaders must set conditions for achieving these ideal states. One of the most effective, well-researched, scientifically supported ways to set conditions for optimal performance is to sleep well. The impact of sleep on cognitive and physical performance is well-documented, but sleep also impacts qualities that are more unique to great leader performance.

Sleep well to lead well

Good leaders understand their environment, make sound decisions, and provide innovative solutions. Sleep has a discrete effect on each of these components of leader performance.

Part of understanding the environment is navigating a complex social world. That includes understanding people, building relationships, and resolving conflict. Research shows that under-slept humans struggle to perform all three of the aforementioned tasks. To the contrary, well-slept individuals demonstrate a superior comprehension of the social world and improved information processing. Here are the key takeaways every leader should consider:

  • Sleep deprived individuals demonstrate a fundamental lack of ability to distinguish friend from foe -- “Is everyone else at this meeting really working against us?”

  • Underslept humans demonstrate a bias towards fear of others -- It’s hard to build meaningful relationships if one believes that everyone else is “out to get them!”

  • Poor sleep decreases empathetic accuracy and the likelihood of conflict resolution -- “The commander just doesn’t get it… he can’t see things from our perspective and he’s not willing to negotiate.”

Is a teenager in charge?

Several brain functions are controlled by the prefrontal cortex, including the capacity to exercise good judgement. Not fully developed until the age of 25, the underdeveloped prefrontal cortex is often cited as the reason why teenagers make immature, poor decisions. Not surprisingly, the prefrontal cortex is the mechanism by which sleep deprivation impacts decision-making. More specifically, sleep deprivation negatively impacts judgement and controlled decisions by way of diminishing prefrontal cortex activity.

How to build a toxic leader


People that sleep less exhibit more unethical behavior.

Emotionally volatile. Makes rash choices. Poor teammate. Lacks flexibility and creativity. Unethical. If one were to create a perfect toxic leader, these attributes would likely top of the list of “must-haves.” Here’s the bad news: all of these “qualities” are easily attained by simply sleeping less.

Failed resolutions

Every year, millions of people participate in an enormous habit-making experiment: New Year’s resolutions. On the first of January, people resolve to lose weight, exercise more, spend less money, and learn new skills. Thirty days later, 75% of people have failed to maintain their resolutions. Statistics show that only 8% of people actually accomplish their mission, illustrating the difficulty of habit formation. Creating a new habit, like most worthwhile undertakings, is extremely challenging.

The most powerful performance enhancing cocktail ever served

Why We Sleep + The Power of Habit + The One Thing

Each of these books are extremely powerful in isolation, but when read in close temporal proximity, the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts. Spoiler Alert: Sleep is the most powerful “one thing” to make habit. Read Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep to gain more insight into the depth and breadth of the importance of sleep. Read Charles Duhigg’s Power of Habit to learn the science of habit formation and increase the likelihood of actually sticking to a new routine. Read Gary Keller’s The One Thing to reinforce the idea that sleep may actually be the one most powerful habit you could create that makes every other goal more attainable.

Tactics and techniques to rapidly improve sleep quality and quantity

Go to bed and wake up at the same time every single day

  • Every human has a natural rhythm that best suits quality sleep. Get in tune with your body and stick to a consistent sleep period.

  • Use the Power of When quiz to better understand your natural rhythm.

Establish a pre-sleep routine.

  • Do the same thing every night before bed to signal to your body that it’s time to go to sleep.

  • A warm shower is a helpful way to wind down, and stepping out of the shower into the cool air will reduce your body temperature -- a critical step to falling asleep quickly.

  • Do not eat within a couple hours of bed time.

  • Avoid TV, computers, and other digital devices within a couple hours of bed time. Exchange the digital stuff for an old fashioned book by a soft light.

Avoid caffeine and alcohol after 1600.

  • This is not an excuse to “day-drink,” but if you choose to imbibe, cease work before 4pm.

Establish an appropriate sleep environment

  • Temperature: cool enough that you want to use the “covers.” No warmer than 68 degrees.

  • Lights: Make your room as dark as possible. Use blackout curtains for the windows and cover any alarm clocks or other blinking lights.

  • Remove all distractions from your room if possible. Trade your TVs for some light reading before bed time.

What gets measured, gets managed.

Think more clearly. Perform better physically. Be a better leader. Sleep is your superpower.

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Lisa Lisa
Lisa Lisa
Jan 28, 2023


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