MIT Sloan Executive Education Blog

The leadership skill you're neglecting? Sleep.

Leaders, executives, and entrepreneurs strive to perform their jobs at the highest levels possible. In many of today's workplace environments, that means being 100% focused on both productivity and efficiency. We've all worked with the road warrior who can "sleep" (or not) on a red eye flight and show up at work the next day and put in a full 10+ hours of work. Or the co-worker who's at the office at 7:00am, and doesn't leave the office until 7:00pm. And in today's always-connected world, it is now the norm to respond to emails and continue to work outside of traditional work hours. In theory, those who approach their jobs with this attitude and commitment are the uber-dedicated, high performers of an organization.

However, research into how the brain works, and under what conditions the brain works best, points to these habits as being counterproductive.

"There's a perceived 'cut off' at the neck," explained Tara Swart, Senior Lecturer at MIT Sloan during a live webinar, Neuroscience for Leadership. "In reality, there is a strong brain-body connection. The conditions of our bodies directly affects the quality of our thinking."

Truly high performing leaders and executives have agile brains, and agile brains are very important in today's stressful world. But stress and high cortisol levels, lack of sleep, dehydration, and lack of oxygen (lack of exercise) all have a scientifically proven negative impact on how the brain functions.

Many people claim they only "need" a handful of hours of sleep each night to be productive. But science proves that's a myth: 98-99% of people do physically require the seven to nine hours of sleep that doctors recommend. Testing has proven that most people will lose five to eight IQ points after just one bad night’s sleep. While we assume we are not being productive during sleep, our brains are actually going through an important cleansing process.

Many of us will try to get a good night’s sleep before an important meeting, presentation, or a particularly big day ahead of us. But as leaders, we make decisions every day, not just on "important" days. The truly high performing leaders among us recognize the importance of sleep every day. That’s something to think about before you book your next red eye flight.

Tara Swart is a Senior Lecturer at MIT Sloan. She is a neuroscientist and the CEO of The Unlimited Mind, a neuroscience consultancy that offers conference key-notes, in-house talks, individual brain-based coaching at the CE level. She teaches in the Executive Education program, Neuroscience for Leadership.


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