Well rested into transformation processes

Time and again, you hear managers mention almost casually how little sleep they get. It seems to be good manners to manage sleep as efficiently as possible. According to the motto “I can sleep when I’m dead”. Really? You can’t really master demanding transformation processes with little sleep.

Is your company currently undergoing a transformation process? Do you want to further develop the corporate culture together with your team? Maybe become more digital and innovative, show more customer orientation, strengthen innovation, or eradicate silo thinking? Cultural change processes are exhausting, because it takes what feels like an eternity before they really take effect. Information, training, motivation, and example must be provided over a period of months or even years. Managers must learn and teach at the same time. This requires a lot of reserve, perseverance, patience, and resilience. This is difficult to achieve with a lack of sleep. In a transformation process, it is therefore better not to turn night into day.

The idea that the real “hot shots” would get by on little sleep comes from the USA, of course. The Wall Street Journal created the term “sleepless elite,” referring to “the lucky ones endowed with the Thatcher gene” – the 1 to 3% of the world’s population who can function on very little sheep. The Iron Lady got by on just four hours of sleep a night. Such short sleepers do indeed exist. One was Chrysler Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne, who died too soon. He was up at 3:30 a.m. every morning. His employees thought that he had thus made the eighth day of the week possible. But if you think back to Marchionne – he not only wore ill-fitting sweaters, but usually had noticeable circles under his eyes. But there is no disputing the performance of the former SGS and Lonza CEO. Pepsi CEO Indra Noody also has the Thatcher gene; she studied for her degree at Yale mainly while working at a hotel reception – from midnight to five in the morning. Even today, she sleeps only four to five hours a night. As you might expect, Elon Musk can’t sleep for more than six hours either. And Barak Obama is also such a night owl with six hours. He is, of course, outdone by his successor, who gets by on just three hours of sleep – less than any president before him. Whether he also has the Thatcher gene, however, we’ll leave open here.

Because almost everything is measured in the U.S., however, we know that most U.S. business leaders need just as much sleep as everyone else; that is, around seven to eight hours per night. According to, Tim Cook of Apple is well on his way with seven hours. He sleeps from 9:30 p.m. to 4:30 a.m., he said. Bill Gates also needs his seven hours of sleep. So does Twitter founder Jack Dorsey: he sleeps from 10:30 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. Jeff Bezos is a strong proponent of the 8-hour Circadian rhythm, he said. “I just feel so much better throughout the day when I’ve had eight hours,” Bezos opined. In 2019, CNN Business wanted to know more and surveyed 250 CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. A full 200 of them said they sleep 7 to 8 hours.

As for what happens to people who don’t sleep as much as they should, the British Medical Journey described it in a study report: “Moderate sleep deprivation leads to impairments in cognitive and motor performance equivalent to the legally prescribed levels of alcohol intoxication.” Somewhat less academically summarized: A person who is awake for 19 or 20 hours (i.e., anyone who sleeps 4 to 5 hours a night) performs tasks like someone who is drunk. A joint study, by the “University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine,” “Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center,” and “Harvard Medical School,” showed that if you sleep only six hours a night for 10 days, you’ll be just as underperforming on day 11 as someone who pulled an all-nighter.

Sleep researcher Christopher Barnes, of the University of Washington, also discovered that sleep-deprived managers show less emotional self-control. This makes it more likely that they behave abusively toward subordinates, which in turn can reduce commitment at work. Researchers at the University of California compared the memory of people who had slept well with those who had not slept at all. They found that under certain conditions, sleep-deprived people mixed facts with fantasy, embellished events and even “remembered” things that never really happened.

Do you run a company that is currently undergoing a transformation process? Then it is certainly not a bad idea to make sure that your managers come to work well-rested. For example, a ban on e-mails after 10 p.m. can serve as a signal for this. But most importantly, turn out the lights at the right time whenever possible.

Photo: Niklas Hamman, Unsplash

— Ralph Hermann / 13 June 2021