There is substantial research indicating that the best, most effective leaders are resilient. They bounce back quicker from setbacks or adversity, and keep the team moving in the right direction. Many perceive resilience as an individual trait, basic to one's personality type.

However research suggests differently, indicating that resilience is a process, a result of individuals interacting with their environments and the processes that promote well-being. In short, resilience is learnt and can be developed.

But can resilience be lost once acquired? The answer is a clear and resounding YES! and probably more easily than is thought.

To understand why this is so we need to examine some of the accepted fundamental characteristics of resilience which include such things as impulse control; empathy; emotional regulation; optimism; and critical thinking.

While all of these can be learnt and developed, research is now showing that our ability to do so is highly dependent upon our well-being. Moreover, as sleep underpins our well-being, the link between sleep and the resilient leader is becoming clearer.

In times of stress a leader may well choose to skip on sleep in the belief that they will get more done or be more effective in resolving issues. However this is far from reality and any productivity gains thought to be achieved from skipping sleep are quickly undone by the negative effects sleep deprivation has on the ability to access higher-level brain functions.

When sleep deprived, tasks are performed more slowly but with a higher error rate. Indeed the negative effects are so great that people who are legally intoxicated outperform those lacking sleep.

During sleep the brain removes toxic wastes that are the by-product of daily brain activity. The brain can only do this while you sleep so when you don’t get enough sleep these waste products stay in your brain cells, killing creativity and, for days, slowing your ability to process information and problem solve.

Additionally neuroimaging studies show that sleep deprivation decreases activity in the prefrontal cortex, a brain area important in making decisions and moderating social behaviour.

These higher-level prefrontal regions, which normally put the brakes on drives and emotional responses generated by lower subcortical regions, may not be able to function optimally, which results quickly in a loss of self-control and emotional instability.

But sleep is not just important for effective, critical thinking and good emotional behaviour it is also fundamental to mental health. Today, depression is the most common psychological disorder in the western world. It has long been recognised that depression can cause sleeping problems but it is now known that the relationship is bi-directional.

In other words, poor sleep can also cause the onset of depression. A study which followed more than 7000 people for 12 months or more, showed that those who reported sleep difficulties at baseline were five times more likely to develop depression than those who reported good sleep.

Added to all this is the fact that the sleep deprived leader is also going to find it hard to remain optimistic because sleep very much affects how you view yourself and the world around you.

Studies have shown that the level of self–esteem and optimism is highest in adults who regularly get between 7 – 9 hours of sleep each night and lowest in those who get less than 6 hours. It has also been found that when you don’t get enough sleep you preferentially remember negative events and have minimal recall of positive events, creating a falsely negative view of yourself and of the events in your life.

Not surprisingly therefore lack of sleep is not only linked to the development of depression but also to lack of motivation and a generalised negative mood state.

In a nutshell, substantial research indicates that when a leader, in times of stress, decides to skip on sleep they will find it difficult to think clearly, control impulsive behaviour, remain calm, motivated and optimistic etc.

Of course the temptation for a leader to swap sleep for wakefulness at such times is high. The reality though is that the resulting benefits are few and the true cost is high - there is a great risk of losing all the attributes of what makes them an effective resilient leader.

So next time you consider skipping on sleep think again!

- Sweet Dreams -

Originally posted on: 30 May 2017
Last updated on: 25 February 2024
Carmel Harrington

Carmel Harrington

Dr Carmel Harrington has been researching sleep for 20 years. She has written books on the topic and advises companies and educational institutions on sleep health. She is an Honorary Research Fellow at the Children's Hospital Westmead, a member of the Australasian Sleep Association and the Sleep Health Foundation.

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