Leading Well Depends on the Wellness of the Leader

Leading Well Depends on the Wellness of the Leader

By James Davis, Ed.M., MA

Leading Well Depends on the Wellness of the Leader

Brian shut the door to his office and leaned back in his chair. He took a few deep breaths. There was tension behind his eyes and in his jaw – he had been grinding his teeth in his sleep. It had been a long day. A few months of long days. Brian was the leader of a small team within a major organization. Success was an expectation and he found it. He would arrive to work early and stay late. His devotion was recognized by those he led but, on this day, reclined and rubbing his temples in a dark office, something was wrong.

He did not have the flu, or at least he didn’t think so, but he felt off. Mental and physical tension were high. Interaction with his peers had been suffering. Before taking this moment to himself, he had raised his voice at a coworker, sent an angry message to his wife, and was caught in the fumes of varied frustration. Things seemed to be crumbling around him. By noon he decided to call off for the day. He had not taken a sick day in years.

He says he does not remember the drive home, but he does remember making himself some tea and sitting down on the couch. The tea was too hot, so he set it down for a moment. The next thing he remembers is waking up in the dark, laying down now, after an unintentional five-hour nap. He brushed his teeth, went to bed, and slept through the night. 

The next day he was fine.

Simply, Brian was exhausted. Sometimes we use the term ‘exhausted’ to describe a long day, to add emphasis to our fatigue. Brian was actually exhausted – drained of physical and mental capacity. In this state, physical and emotional health fail, as do our relationships and our potential to lead.

Versions of this story play out time and time again. When they are prolonged throughout a career, they can be far more serious, with leaders ending up in the hospital or worse. And of course, the quality of leadership falters.

The Leadership Team

This past year we conducted a workshop (alongside a variety of surveys) to support a leadership team at a successful organization. The group we worked with was high achieving. By any quantifiable measure, they were at the top of their field. In addition to their impressive track record, they scored very high in the areas of grit, growth, gratitude, and goal directed behavior. It was clear that the group possessed many essential skills for success.

The leadership team’s culture was also commendable. The group scored very high in the primary areas of workplace relationships, including three big ones: 1) quality of relationships within the organization, 2) quality of relationships within the leadership team, and 3) feelings of physical and emotional safety.

 A skilled leadership team in a healthy workplace culture should translate to positive outcomes, right? In this case, the quantifiable successes were clear, but something was lurking underneath the surface…

 In response to the prompt “I have plenty of time to do what’s requested of me during the day,” the group highly disagreed, with an average score of 3/10 (where a score of 10 indicated full agreement with the associated statement). In response to the prompt “I have more work than I am capable of completing,” the group agreed (7.1/10); and to the prompt “I have more work than I am capable of completing with a high level of quality,” the group highly agreed (8.21/10).

 Although the leaders were skilled, and reportedly operating within a quality work environment, they were feeling overwhelmed by their work. Worse still, in response the prompt “how would you rate your overall mental health?” 60% of the team reported a 6 or below out of 10. Self-reports on physical health were even lower, with 70% of the team reporting low scores.

 Low health scores (both mental and physical) and more work than the group can complete with a high level of quality creates an unsustainable situation. While the leadership group appreciated one another, believed that they were doing meaningful work, and seemed to be successful, there was clearly an unidentified variable in the mix.

Rest Well 

Leaders too often discount their own wellbeing in pursuit of lofty goals. It’s not just those at the top, sleep deprivation is an epidemic. The national sleep average has dropped one full hour since the 1940s, down to merely 6.8 hours per night. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends 7-9 hours per night for adults, which makes us – officially – a sleep deprived nation.

Sleep deprivation leads to a variety of negative health outcomes, both physical and mental. With this in mind, and based on previous experience with leadership teams, sleep data was also collected through our survey. What we found was enlightening, though not surprising.

Sleep quantity (total hours of sleep) continues to be a dependable metric when other biometrics like heart rate and respiration rate are not available. As we analyzed the group’s data, sleep quantity responses were broken into two categories, Adequate (8+ hours) and Inadequate (6.5 or fewer hours), before being cross tabulated with other wellness responses. Sleep impacted this leadership group in three important areas: interpretation of workplace stressors, motivation, and optimism in workplace communication.

Interpretation of stressors as “negative” in quality had a convincing alignment with sleep duration. In the inadequate sleep group (6.5 hours or fewer), 100% of respondents acknowledged that the quality of their stress during the week of the survey was negative (the team’s average score was 6.7/10, with 10 being most negative). The opposite was true in the well-rested group. None of the respondents in the adequate sleep group (8 or more hours per night) believed the stress they experienced that week was excessively negative (average: 2.7/10).

The trend continued. In the group reporting inadequate sleep, motivation was significantly lower than their well-rested peers. In response to the prompt, “I often feel motivated to come to work,” the group who slept 8 or more hours per night averaged 9.2/10 (with 10 being complete agreement with the statement), while the inadequate sleep group averaged 6.4/10.

In questions regarding healthy communication with peers, the adequate sleep group found it easy to maintain optimism in their communication (8.9/10) while the inadequate sleep group reported maintaining optimism to be more difficult (6.4/10). Furthermore, the adequate sleep group seems to be more comfortable clarifying difficult ideas with coworkers (9/10) than the inadequate sleep group (7.1/10). The trend was becoming more and more clear.

These results align with previous studies which indicate sleep duration as a primary variable in the interpretation of one’s environment. They also align with good logic. If two people – one well-rested, the other sleep deprived – encounter the same challenge (say, rush hour traffic or a difficult conversation with a peer), the sleep deprived person would likely interpret the experience in a more negative way. In short, sleep deprivation makes people more negative. Survey results from these sleep deprived leaders appeared to prove this out.

The way a leader interprets their environment is essential to their decision-making. It is possible that inadequate sleep was impacting the perception of the leaders, degrading their ability to lead well.

Lead Well

William Shakespeare famously suggested that “Nothing [is] either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Author and philosopher Ryan Holiday agrees that “through our perception of events, we are complicit in their creation.” If perception is so essential to the way we experience and manage of our lives, then leaders would be wise to acknowledge the variables which impact perception. Sleep, for example. Or lack thereof.

During the 4th century BC, Lao Tzu inked the third verse of the Tao te Ching on a thin sheet of bamboo. “Thus, the Sage rules / by stilling minds and opening hearts / by filling bellies and strengthening bones” – he was talking about leadership (how the Sage rules) beginning with mental and physical health. Health for the leader and for those he hopes to lead.

One especially curious leader in this group admitted feeling “irritable, frustrated, [and] sometimes angry” when he did not get enough rest. He said that this impacted his ability to lead, but often felt that he had to “grind it out.” It’s all too common concern.

Improving sleep will not solve all problems, but in most cases, it will influence the way those problems are perceived. Leadership depends on the wellness of the leader. Prioritizing wellness is not always easy, but it will always be worth it.



Jim Davis is a leadership expert with special emphasis on mental and physical wellbeing. Jim has received the US Marine Corps’ Excellence in Leadership Award, the Semper Fidelis All-American Mentor award, the NASAPL National Coach of the Year award, and was named to Coach & AD Magazine’s 40 under 40 list. He studied Human Development and Psychology at Harvard University and has put that understanding into action while building programs, managing elite-level staffs, and training more than 40 State and National Championship teams. He is the Staff & Student Wellness Coordinator at New Trier High School (IL) and has written extensively in the areas of leadership, psychology, and education.


Contact Us

Master of Science in Education School of Education & Social Policy

618 Garrett Place
Evanston, IL 60208
Northwestern University

Phone: 847/467-1458

Email: teacherleadership@northwestern.edu