Attention sleepers. Come out and be proud.

It was one of those “town hall” type meetings where everyone in the company shuffles in, takes their seat on time, and then patiently waits for the Managing Director to take his position centre stage. He was a lovely man, well known for his knack of remembering every employee's name as he did his regular walk around each business unit.

Sound check done. Presentation begins. It must’ve only been about ten minutes later, when he noticed one of his senior leaders a few rows from the front, with his head slightly bent and eyes closed. The Managing Director, in his affable and non-offensive manner, calls out “Peter”! Almost immediately, Peter’s eyes open wide and simultaneously he calls out “yes darling?” Unfortunately, it wasn’t his partner waking him up this time, but the Managing Director. Ouch.

Of course there were a few chuckles but there was a serious side, and that is the correlation between lack of sleep and performance.

In the journal Occupational & Environmental Medicine (Occup Environ Med 2000; vol 57: no. 10: pp 649-655), a paper was published titled “Moderate sleep deprivation produces impairments in cognitive and motor performance equivalent to legally prescribed levels of alcohol intoxication” by A M Williamson and Anne-Marie Feyer. The objective was to compare the relative effects on performance of sleep deprivation and alcohol. The results were that after 17-19 hours without sleep, performance on some tests was equivalent or worse than that at a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.05%. In Australia, that’s the legal alcohol limit.

If you’re thinking that this is more of an issue if you’re a surgeon, a truck driver, or an elite athlete, then think again. McKinsey and Co, the global management consulting firm, has also taken a keen interest in sleep (or lack of) and leadership behaviour (performance). McKinsey’s global chief learning officer, Nick van Dam, and specialist Els van der Helm were the authors of a published article titled “The organisational cost of inefficient sleep”. At the time of writing this blog, it was still available on their website at It’s a very interesting read.

They write that lack of sleep can have a big impact on core leadership behaviours most common within high quality executive teams. And these core leadership behaviours are the ones that will drive organisational performance. They are:

  1. The ability to operate with a strong orientation to results
  2. To solve problems effectively
  3. To seek out different perspectives; and
  4. To support others.

It’s pretty clear that if one’s thinking is compromised from lack of sleep, then so too will these four core behaviours.

Not everyone needs 8 hours sleep per night. Many people may function at their optimum level at slightly less than 8 hours sleep each night. And of course there will be the very small percentage who completely throw all research out the window and somehow function on 4-6 hours each night successfully. But they are not the majority.

How about the 8 hours per night sleepers come out of the closet and say out loud “I’m a high performing leader and I aim for 8 hours of sleep every night”.

There are no badges of honour to be handed out to the 4-5 hours folk. Nope. Instead, let's hand out “well done and thank you” certificates instead to the 7-8 hours folk looking after their prefrontal cortex so they can continue to be the top performers and make a much bigger contribution to their organisation’s bottom line.