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Better leadership through sleep?

What leader among us doesn’t want to be able to think more clearly, process information more effectively, remember more of what we learn, see, read and hear, be more innovative and navigate our emotions more effectively?

New research presented at the Neuroleadership Summit in London in September gives us some helpful answers on how to increase our Leadership Stamina in all the ways listed above.

Perhaps not surprising in its recommendation but surprising in the degree of importance it holds, adequate or high-quality rather than “good” sleep tops the list of critical strategies to maximize our brain’s potential to support good leadership.

Jessica Payne, Ph.D. – a neuroscientist at the US University Notre Dame - specializes in stress research. In probably one of the most startling comments of the summit, she introduced her sleep research by stating “If we are sleep deprived, our cognitive ability is as limited as if we are drunk.” Even more startling was the clarification that sleep deprivation occurs when we have even just one night of less than optimal sleep!

As Dr. Payne’s research shows, sleep improves our brain functioning in several ways. To begin with, the early first few hours of sleep are our deepest stages and the time our brains capture and store memories of what we have experienced. Disrupt this stage of sleep, and our memories of what we read, discussed, saw, and committed to will be weaker and less reliable.

Sleep also helps our brains with what neuroscientists call “creative cognition” - our ability to see patterns and make connections and inferences - by helping us to solidify the gist of meaning of what we’ve experienced. This process happens later in the sleep cycle in what is commonly known as REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. Without good sleep during this phase, we reduce our ability to problem solve, be creative and manage our emotions.

For those of us who sometimes struggle to get a full night’s sleep, Dr. Payne offered some good news. Apparently it doesn’t take a lot of change for our brains to feel the benefits of a bit more sleep. Dr. Payne’s suggestions:
  • Get 20 minutes more sleep each night or,
  • Take a 20 minute “power nap” during the dayIf more sleep just isn’t an option, activities called “sleep proxies,”, while not offering the complete benefits of extra sleep, get us close to the same benefits. Sleep proxies to try:
  • Meditation
  • A relaxing walk in nature
  • Closing your eyes and listening to peaceful music
So next time you are struggling to remember something, taking longer to solve a problem, or wishing you could be a bit more creative, try a little more sleep – your brain and your colleagues will thank you!

Tricia Nadaff
President Management Research Group

Tricia Nadaff is the president of our strategic partner Management Research Group, an assessment design firm based in Portland, beautiful Maine (USA). With offices in Dublin (Ireland). They are our prime supplier of the assessments we use with our clients at our firm. All of their assessments and services are designed and delivered to offer meaningful insight, inspire reflection, and make people feel valued, respected, and encouraged. It honors the complexity of the individuals we work with. Not overly simplifying and bringing people back to colors or numbers. For more info, please visit them here (