Sleep Your Way to Success (The Idle Way to Success?)

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Home > Articles > Sleep Your Way to Success (The Idle Way to Success?)

 Sleep Your Way to Success (The Idle Way to Success?)

Jo Owen | Today's Manager
December 2, 2019

Does being successful mean that you should forgo sleep? The author discusses this.

If the race to the top is survival of the fittest, then who would you back to win the race?

  • Candidate A: vegetarian non-drinker, ex-Army;
  • Candidate B: high blood pressure, atherosclerosis, coronary artery disease causing angina pectoris, and congestive heart failure; and
  • Candidate C: alcoholic, smoker, overweight, depressive.

The question is obviously a set-up. The candidates are in order: Hitler, Roosevelt, and Churchill. They all got to the top in their own ways. The Allied leaders were epically unfit, but that did not stop them being epically successful. A sample size of three is not entirely scientific, although it provides cheap ammunition for anyone who wants to avoid being a vegetarian teetotaller. But the idea of the survival of the fittest runs deep, and is part of the “heroic” leader myth. A classic example is General McChrystal, who commanded the US Special Operations. He was still getting up at 4am every morning to do 80 minutes of work out, starting with a quick 100 sit-ups, at the age of 60.

Following the General McChrystal example, the traditional view is that sleep is for wimps. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had a legendary lack of need for sleep, and the legend keeps on growing. In time, we will discover that she routinely got up three hours before going to bed. The idea that sleep is for wimps is reinforced by the 24/7 economy and the global firm. The presumption is that the leader must always be on call to be in control. This is the sort of view which compels interns and young graduates at investment banks to pull an all night work session. Or at least, they leave their jackets at their desk all night.

But lack of sleep is just dumb. The same firms which value the intern putting in an all night shift, would probably fire the intern if she turned up drunk in the morning. All the evidence shows that alcohol and lack of sleep have exactly the same effect on performance. The American Automobile Association (AAA) looked at the effect of lack of sleep on road safety. Here is what they found:

  • Six to seven hours sleep: 1.3 times the crash risk;
  • Five to six hours sleep: 1.9 times the crash risk;
  • Four to five hours sleep: 4.3 times the crash risk; and
  • Under four hours sleep: 11 times the crash risk.

Repeated studies show that lack of sleep causes slower and worse reactions, just like alcohol. In practice, sleep is often the secret to success. Stanford University ran an experiment where they helped the university women’s tennis team increase their sleep to 10 hours a night. Those who succeeded in sleeping ten hours a night for five weeks ran faster and hit more accurate shots. The Royal Marines understand the importance of sleep and performance, which is why they will test recruits under tough conditions and sleep deprivation: they want to see how they cope when their cognitive and physical capabilities are impaired.

Although there are low sleep outliers among leaders, most use sleep to maintain performance. General McChrystal might rise at 4am, but he is usually done with his day by 8pm. He may not be the best person to invite to your next party. Former British Prime Minister Churchill was not a paragon of health, but he could keep working into the early hours because he regularly had a two hour nap around 5pm. This breaking of the day up into shifts is highly efficient and was copied by American Presidents Johnson and Kennedy. In practice, if it is possible to win a world war by napping during the day, it should be possible to manage a firm without working 24/7. The need to work all hours is normally a reflection of a control freak who can not let go or a narcissist who believes that only they are capable of getting things right. Long hours are a sign of weakness, not strength.

The good news is that you do not need to be a super fit hero to be a good leader. Like Churchill, you can even drink and smoke, at least in private. But whatever you do, you can not afford to be sleep deprived. Working all hours is heroic and stupid in equal proportions.

It appears that sleep is a magic ingredient: you really can sleep your way to success. Even when you are awake, you do not have to be a manic multi-tasker to succeed. In reality, manic multi-tasking is precisely the wrong way to succeed. All the research shows that humans are lousy at multi-tasking. One piece of research looked at the productivity of coders and found that each time they were interrupted, it took them 15 minutes to get back on task properly, and that error rates doubled. So each time you say hello to a colleague, you are wrecking their productivity. If you doubt the research, do your own research: watch people attempting to walk down the street and text at the same time. They land up being useless at both activities.

As a leader, overactivity is normally the sign of someone who does not know how to lead. A fatal flaw in many leaders is to mistake activity for achievement. Being busy is not the same as being useful. When Paul Geddes restructured the insurer Direct Line, he removed an entire layer of top management. That meant he had to fire people he knew, he liked, and who were apparently doing good and useful jobs under immense pressure and stress. He found that once that layer of management had been eliminated, the firm actually worked better. All that management activity was just creating noise which other managers had to deal with. Work simply creates more work: removing a layer of work increased efficiency.

Some of the best leaders are also some of the idlest. The patron saint of idle leadership is Former US President Ronald Reagan. He was widely ridiculed as President: he was a second rate actor who was perceived not to be too bright and to be far too lazy. He was, in other words, dumb and idle. He also happened to end the cold war, negotiate a landmark nuclear arms treaty, and introduce the world to the ideal of Reagonomics. Those are massive achievements which Presidents before and since have struggled to emulate.

So how did a dumb and idle President manage to achieve so much? He had three secrets to his success:

  1. He knew what he wanted to achieve: beat the “Evil Empire” of the old Soviet Union, deregulate the economy, and reduce regulation.
  2. He built a strong team. The role of the leader is not to be the smartest person in the room, which would have been a problem for Reagan. The role of the leader is to get the smartest people into the room. Reagan did this: he did not have to show off by solving all the most difficult problems himself. You can always hire in brains when you need them. He delegated more or lesseverything. This allowed him time to perfect his incompetence at golf.
  3. He knew what his role was. If you delegate everything away, you make yourself redundant. As a leader, you have to know where and how you add value. Reagan was clear about this: he was the “great communicator” and even his detractors admitted that he could put his acting skills to great effect to persuade the American people to follow him and his ideas.

Reagan’s formula is a good formula for all leaders. It was the formula which one of my best bosses followed, and he was also the idlest boss I ever had. Paul’s idleness was devastatingly effective. Paul followed the Reagan success model:

He knew what he wanted to achieve. He was very focussed on making budget (and bonus) with the minimum of effort. In practice, that meant building a loyal stable of clients in Financial Services who would stay with him year after year. That was all he cared about: anything else was irrelevant to him. Relentless focus is the hallmark of a good manager.

He built a strong team. He would argue like crazy to make sure he got all the A* players working with him; he would work the HR systems and he invested time and effort in attracting the best players to him. Once they were on his team, he could rely on his team to deliver great results to clients and to develop new IP to attract new clients. He did not need to be the smartest person on the team, because he had hired all the brains to be smart for him.

He was very clear about where he added value. He knew that there were three things he had to do:

  • Negotiate the right budget. It is better to negotiate hard for one month to have an easy 11 months, than to accept a “challenging” budget which leads to 11 months of hell and under-achievement versus an unrealistic budget.
  • Build the right team, as above. That meant he delegated everything. If you ask “what can I delegate?” you will come up with a very short list. If instead you ask “where do I really add value” you come up with an equally short list, and then you
    can delegate the rest. That shows huge trust in the team which motivates them and allows them to learn and grow fast.
  • Manage his clients: Paul would always have time to listen to his clients and to help them by delegating their problems to his team, for a fee.

If you really want to succeed, focus on working smart not on working hard.



​Mr Jo Owen is the author of Global Teams and 14 other management books. He is a founder of the UK’s largest graduate recruiter, Teach First, and has started six other charities, a bank, and a business in Japan.


Copyright © 2019 Singapore Institute of Management

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