Does sleep deprivation make you a good leader?

It’s not uncommon to hear about how little world leaders sleep. Some boast how they survive on just a few hours of sleep a night.

They like to give the impression that they’re always ‘switched-on’. Always thinking, always ‘agile’ and ready for the next challenge.

But can some people really work well on minimal sleep?

Famous world leaders who thrive on little sleep

One of the most well-known ‘light sleepers’ is Winston Churchill. As Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, he led the country to victory during World War II. Churchill famously worked through the night - but he loved a nap. He kept a bed in the House of Parliament so he could take naps whenever the opportunity arose and was a stickler for a 2-hour nap at 5pm every day.

Another UK PM who was known to survive on just 4 hours sleep a night was Margaret Thatcher. Dubbed the ‘Iron Lady’, she was renowned for her ability to work long hours on very little sleep. Her work and sleep habits inspired the discovery of the so-called ‘Thatcher Gene’. This gene variant is believed to allow some people to function normally on far less sleep than is recommended for healthy human functioning.

Tim Cook, CEO at Apple, tries to fit as much into his day as possible. His alarm goes off at 3.45am so he can squeeze in everything it takes to run one of the most successful companies in the world.

Losing a few hours’ sleep is a small price to pay claims Cook: “The thing about it is, when you love what you do, you don’t really think of it as work. It’s what you do. And that’s the good fortune of where I find myself.”

The downside of getting less sleep

Experts recommend that most of us need an average of 7 to 8 hours sleep every night. Though some people seem to thrive on less than the recommended 8 hours sleep, the negative consequences of sleep deprivation are well documented. They include:

  • Heart disease and stroke
  • Increased anxiety
  • Increased risk of obesity
  • Inhibited immune system
  • Underperformance at work
  • More prone to accidents on the road

A lack of sleep can also have an impact on your emotions and ability to think clearly. It has been linked to:

  • A tendency to think negatively
  • Bad moods and intolerance of others
  • Inability to delay gratification
  • An inclination to be superstitious

Short-sleepers: Can some people survive and thrive on less than 6 hours a night?

As with most things, there are always exceptions to the rule. One study, which looked at the effects of sleep deprivation, concluded that there are many people who seem to cope with less sleep.

Even among so called ‘short-sleepers’, some people were more sensitive than others. They identified that, even with people who seemed to operate reasonably well on little sleep, certain tasks were impaired. For example, there is evidence that sleep deprivation often impairs memory and academic performance.

Whatever the case, the evidence that the harmful long-term consequences of sleep deprivation is strong.

Leaders who liked their shut-eye

Our own Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull reckons he’s a ‘solid sleeper’. In an interview with ABC 7.30 Report’s Leigh Sales he claimed: "The key to being a happy and effective prime minister is to get a good night's sleep and plenty of exercise," Mr Turnbull said.

Entrepreneur and Virgin Group founder Richard Branson typically gets 5 to 6 hours of sleep most days. He makes sure to turn off his devices a little before going to bed “so my brain can unwind.”

What’s your sleep ‘sweet spot’?

Are you someone who loves their shut-eye or are you switched-on late into the night?