Sleep: The Secret Leadership Weapon No One Wants to Talk About

sleep, leadership

If there was a secret weapon in leadership, would you use it?

Most of us would say ‘absolutely’—as long as it’s ethical.

So here’s a leadership weapon almost no leader will talk about. In fact, in some circles, it’s embarrassing to talk about.


More specifically, getting enough of it.

In more than a few high octane leadership circles, barely sleeping is seen as a badge of honour (I can run on 4 hours a night!)

But what if your lack of sleep wasn’t a badge of honour at all?

What if your lack of sleep is undermining your leadership? Making you worse, not better?

And what if it’s not just taking a toll on you at work, but also at home…making you a worse parent, spouse and even friend?

So…What Happens When You Don’t Get Enough Sleep?

1. Lack of sleep can literally kill you.

And the implications are a little more serious than nodding off in a meeting after lunch. According to medical research, chronic lack of sleep can cause weight gain, age your skin, harm your sex drive, impair memory and can contribute to illnesses as serious as diabetes, heart attacks, strokes and even premature death.

It’s a little shocking, but it’s not actually an exaggeration to say that a chronic lack of sleep can kill you.

2. Lack of sleep often leads to burnout.

I know for me, chronic lack of sleep was one of the key factors that led to my burnout a number of years back.

Like many leaders, in the name of caring for others, I had stopped caring for myself and my family. I thought I was superhuman, and I only needed 4-5 hours of sleep a night.

3. At a minimum, it will make you hard to live with.

Even if you’re not dead, sick or burning out, lack of sleep can turn you into you a bit of a jerk.

Unrested, you’ll snap at the kids more, fight with your spouse more, and even at work, you won’t be fun to hang around.

Or at least all of the above is true for me.

Here’s what I find.

I am at my most kind when I’m the most rested. When I’m tired, I’m just not nearly as nice to be around.

If you can’t identify with that statement, it’s probably because you haven’t been well rested in, well, years.

You’ll be amazed what happens if you ever get enough sleep to finally not be tired any more. Seriously.

Sleep Is Like Money. You Can End Up In Debt

So what happens if you’re chronically overtired?

The same thing that happens when you’re in debt…that’s what.

One of the key lessons I learned in my burnout back in 2006 is that sleep is like money.

You can run a surplus…or you can run a deficit.

And just like with finances, when you run a deficit over time, you end up with debt that you carry from month to month and year to year. A debt that needs to be paid off. 

This lesson became inescapable for me personally in August 2006. 3 months into my burnout, I was having a hard time functioning.

In fact, my fatigue was inescapable. So I decided to sleep every time my body told me I was tired.

I slept a lot that August.  8-11 hours a night. I added to that multiple naps a day whenever I could grab them.

By the end of the month, I felt much better.

I could work again. I could breathe again.

While my burnout wasn’t fully over, I felt flickers of hope again.

Soon, I was on the gradual road to recovery.

So What Can You Do? 5 Keys to Staying Rested

So how do you stay rested?

Better yet, how do you get rested if you’re reading this article and are quietly saying “oh crap?”

1. Lose the stigma

I love that a few years ago Michael Hyatt went public by admitting that he takes naps. Thank you Michael!

Not only does Michael take naps, but so, as he pointed out, have many great leaders in history.

I have always been a napper. I even nap at work occasionally. But I feel like if someone caught me, I’d be in trouble.

That’s a bad thing.

For me a ten minute nap can be the difference between heading into the afternoon raring to go, and dragging my knuckles wishing it was 5:00. It can be the difference between being sharp and being in a fog or being disinterested.

It’s not just the stigma around naps leaders need to lose, it’s the stigma around a good night’s sleep.

I unapologetically go to bed on time when I’m on the road hanging out with other leaders, and when I’m at home.

A rested me is a better me. Just ask my wife. Just ask my kids. Ask my team.

2. Catch up

You might be in your equivalent of August 2006 for me. You might need to take a week or two off to sleep.

Do it.

Or maybe you’re just running hard for a season. Catch up.

I realize you might have young kids or be in launch mode for a new project.

But here’s the truth.

You will always have a reason to cheat your sleep.

You will never have a reasons to catch up, unless you decide it’s time.

So decide it’s time.

If you have young kids, trade nights for being on call with your spouse until you are both as caught up as you can be.

If you’re a single parent, ask someone to take the kids for a night or two and then sleep.

And, if you don’t have young kids, you really don’t have a good excuse. Just get disciplined.

3. Develop better sleep routines

Here are few things that can help you sleep better.

1. Go to bed at the same time every night. Researchers say you will sleep better if you do.

2. Go to bed earlier.  This was huge for me. Instead of staying up late to get stuff done, get up earlier to get things done. Sleep in on the front side. I try to be asleep every night by 10:30. Sometimes it’s as earlier as 9:30. And I’m up between 4:30 – 5:30 every morning. That’s my sweet spot.

3. Sleep in a dark room and turn off electronics. I love my phone, but it’s off (as in powered down) every night.  If it’s an emergency, someone will knock at my door and wake me up. If the world ends, well, there’s not much I can do about it anyway when I’m asleep.

4. Get as good a mattress as you can afford.  Get as picky about a good mattress as you can with your budget. You’ll spend 1/3 of your life on it.  So invest well.

5. Don’t eat much before bed. It helps you sleep better…it really does.

4. Watch for the signs

Since I burned out, I have paid super close attention to the signals my body tells me about my fatigue level. As soon as I sense I’m running a sleep deficit, I try to pay it off.

Here are some signs that tell me I’m tired:

1. A bad or sullen mood. Someone once said that 70% of discipleship is a good night’s sleep. Well yes it is. I am more of a Christian when I’m well rested. So I watch my mood like a hawk. Being short with people, angry, sad or lacking mercy are all signs I’m tired.

2. I watch my passion level. When I’m rested, I’m excited about work, about life, and about seeing people. If everything seems like a chore or an obligation, I’m out of balance. For sure, some things will always seem like a chore, but everything shouldn’t.

3. I watch my creativity. If I have trouble coming up with great ideas or great content, it’s a sign my mind is tired. I probably need more sleep.

4. I find myself nodding off. When I’m tired in meetings, driving or watching TV, it’s a sign I need more sleep. I know that’s obvious, but it’s so easy for this to become ‘normal’ I just thought I’d mention it.

5. React quickly

I still run hard. We all have busy seasons and busy weeks, and I get tired regularly. Part of my personality is I love to push myself and push limits. I get that.

But now I react quickly when I’m getting tired.

Why don’t you try that this week?

Take a nap.

Cancel your plans for tonight and go to bed early.

Don’t wait.

You’ll be fresher more often, and you’ll have far more energy for your family, for life and for work.

That’s what I’ve been learning about sleep as a leader and as a follower of Christ.

It should be no surprise that God wants us to spend 1/7 of our life resting (Sabbath) and created us to sleep 1/3 of our life away.

Your calling, your family and your life are too important for you not to sleep.

Now you can use your new secret weapon.

Sleep More, Crush Your Work Goals AND Spend More Time With Your Family

Rest isn’t the enemy of productivity.

Do you want to unlock more of your potential in life and leadership and get more time for yourself and for your family?

Sounds crazy, but it’s not. I know because I’ve lived it. A few years back, I seriously crashed and burned because the demands on my time and life were bigger than the time I had to accomplish them. I’ve learned every lesson in this post the hard way.

And after I burned out, I promised myself that wouldn’t happen again.

Today, I still have bigger goals than ever before, but I’ve made fundamental changes that have led to a healthier, happier lifestyle without sacrificing my family and vastly increasing my productivity at work. I’ve taken what I’ve learned during this journey and put it into the High Impact Leader course.

You can complete the three-hour course at your own pace. It’s the most comprehensive content I’ve ever created for leaders to help you reclaim HOURS every day so you can become more effective at work and more present at home. When your time, energy, and priorities are all working together for you, it’ll impact everything you do.

Many leaders who have taken it are recovering 3 productive hours a day.  That’s about 1000 hours of found time each year. That’s a lot of time for what matters most.

Here are what some alumni are saying about The High Impact Leader Course”

“Thank you, thank you, thank you for providing the course again. It has absolutely made an impact in my life and family already that I can’t even describe.” – Joel Rowland, First Priority, Clayton County, North Carolina

“Just wow.  Thank you, thank you.” Dave Campbell,  Sioux Falls South Dakota

A game changer.” Pam Perkins, Colorado Springs, Colorado

Want to beat overwhelm and have the time to reflect, rest and reinvent yourself?

Click here to learn more or get instant access.

What are you learning about sleep?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

Sleep: The Secret Leadership Weapon No One Wants to Talk About


  1. judith on July 14, 2020 at 3:48 am

    Thank you for such a powerful rebuke this is my Big Mistake I’ve regretted , just as what you said never too late Thank You LORD!

  2. Ken Green on May 9, 2018 at 10:21 am

    I’ve accepted the fact (and the feedback from my wife) that I have Severe OSA (Obstructive Sleep Apnea), and I am taking steps to address that through a clinical sleep study and (gulp) getting CPAP machine. (I guess I stop breathing or struggle to breathe something north of 20x / hour. They say that is not conducive to good rest.) I’m also told my wife will get more rest because she won’t be listening for when I stop breathing.

    • Joanna K Chapman on April 24, 2021 at 9:30 am

      Hey Ken! I know it seems and looks silly but get the CPAP. It changed my life! I was a mess before I even knew and thank God a new dr. tested me and prescribed it. YES!

  3. […] really believe sleep is a secret leadership weapon most leader […]

  4. Martha Newton Lester on December 29, 2016 at 12:12 pm

    Excellent article…thanks for sharing the practical importance of this. I will share this! I remember a Sunday message once whose main point was that sometimes the most spiritual thing you can do is to sleep!!

  5. Paul Walker on December 4, 2015 at 8:13 pm

    I had mentor that would always tell us younger leaders to manage our sleep habits. His catch phrase was, “Never go to bed on the same day you have to get up”.

  6. […] of sleep for church leaders and pastors in his blog. He even stated that sleep is the “Secret Leadership Weapon No One Wants to Talk About“.  He includes some tips to help you stay […]

  7. Wednesday Link List | Thinking Out Loud on November 5, 2014 at 6:02 am

    […] The secret church leadership (and business leadership) weapon that nobody ever talks about. […]

  8. Tandy Adams on November 1, 2014 at 8:40 am

    This is so timely for me. For the past 4 years I have only slept 3-4 hours a night… Consistently. And I don’t have young kids… I have teenagers. I realized just two weeks ago I was caught in a vicious cycle. I would wake up and consume crazy amounts of coffe/caffeine to function throughout the day and then at night I couldn’t sleep. My whole family, even my kids, would ask every morning if I had enough sleep and of course I would snap at them about it. So two weeks ago I decided I was killing myself literally not to mention being a horrible example to my children. So I cut my coffee way back and made myself sleep. It was a very hard week. But once my body adjusted, I found that I could sleep. Another major part of that was telling myself I was not being lazy. I despise lazy and always felt like sleeping was a waste of my time. I would fight sleep because all I could think about was what I could be doing during that time. So I think I would add to give yourself permission to sleep. Sounds silly but that’s what I had to do. I realize I am not yet caught up but am happy to say I have slept 6-7 hours each night for week and last night I slept 9.

    • Tandy Adams on November 1, 2014 at 8:43 am

      Also I would say listen to those around you, my kids, husband, parents, even my pastor have all been telling me I needed to sleep. When that many people are saying the same thing, there is probably truth in it. Don’t be stubborn, be teachable and take it to heart.

  9. Lawrence W. Wilson on October 31, 2014 at 6:06 am

    I accepted the fact some time ago that my body craves 8.5 hours of sleep each day. I can sleep 9.5 to 10 hours on a weekend or holiday. I say this only to empower the other jungle cats out there. You don’t have to run like a gerbil in order to get something done.

  10. Geoff Cocanower on October 30, 2014 at 2:47 pm

    I think I need to put a couch in my office instead of a table and chairs for meetings. haha…

    I’ve heard this before, but I am not sure that I have taken it to heart. I’m 28 with no wife and kids and am starting to feel the effects of fatigue because I have always thought- I’m gonna just get this done, so I’ll stay till 7 or I’ll hangout with these teens till 11pm.

    I think I’ll start looking for a bit of a rearrangement. Let’s hope the NFL and MLB start to work into my schedule. 🙂 Thanks Carey!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 30, 2014 at 3:38 pm

      Way to go Geoff! I have the couch for my new office sitting in my garage waiting for construction to finish.

      Enjoy the downtime. You will lead better!

  11. Aaron Newell on October 30, 2014 at 9:06 am

    This is one of the hardest things for me to do. As a youth and young adult pastor sleep was always the enemy, at least that’s what I thought. I know we still are not getting enough, but we have learned to listen to our bodies more and when it says go to sleep we do if at all possible. There are times the night is interrupted by the 3 year old or the 8 year old those are some of the hardest times to “say Yes” but we have been doing it. I know when I am well rested I’m a kinder, gentler Aaron. I look at it this way, my family and my calling deserve my best, not whatever I throw to them. Sometimes things can’t be helped, and I wish I could say I always go to sleep when I should. Add getting enough sleep to the idea of walking with Christ, and well we can be one step closer to being more like him…Besides Jesus napped in the Boat when all hell was breaking loose.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 30, 2014 at 10:56 am

      Aaron…appreciate this and the fact that you’re at the stage of life you’re in. It’s hard with young kids.

      You are so right to point to the life of Jesus. He rested…a lot.

    • Lorrie on October 31, 2018 at 6:12 am

      I can fall asleep but unable to stay asleep. It’s like my mind will not turn off. It’s gone on for about 5 years. Any suggestions?

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