Ideas trend; currently I am reading a lot about the need for sleep. My interest has been partly piqued by Oxford’s schedule; the relentless pace of the MBA is made harder by the whirlwind of activity that is happening every night around Oxford.
As I write this I have gone from an event at the Oxford University Officer Training Corps to a Q&A session at the Oxford Union with skateboarding legend Tony Hawk to an employer event with OEE at the business school. Tomorrow evening I will have to navigate between a presentation on leadership, a talk on the economics and politics of migration, a debate at the Union where an old military colleague of mine is speaking, and judo training. Between all this there’s plenty of reading to do for the lectures, and ideally some socialising. I don’t suffer from FOMO – I believe that if your priorities are clear and you know what you want to achieve then decisions about what to do and where to go are often made for you. But even with that caveat it is tough to cram it all into a full day; hitting the pillow often happens so late that it is critical to get to a quality state of sleep quickly to ensure that we’re alert for the next day’s activities.
Not only is sleep is a topic that has been discussed for generations, but it is a topic which transcends sectors; it is the bleed-across between the military and private sectors that interests me, and subsequently how the failure to get enough sleep impacts on the decision-making process by leaders – the science is clear.
Getting enough sleep is a perennial problem for members of the military. The nature of conflict, with its Clauswitzian friction, means that maintaining a regular sleep rhythm is difficult. In the current climate western nations have the advantages over their adversaries at night; as such the call to “Own the night” is often made by commanders, which demands that people operate outside their circadian rhythm. Not all theatres are the same; more mature operations with a focus on domestic capability development and which align to host nations’ normal daily activities (including sleep cycles), often have a more established pattern. However, one of my constant cries is the need to avoid the arrogance of presentism, and although such sleep-friendly campaigns are dominant in the current operational setting, they are an historical aberration. Sleep deprivation for service personnel is here to stay.
This is particularly challenging at certain levels of command, where tradition dictates that a commander should not go to sleep unless he is certain that his soldiers have been taken care of. The great Field Marshall Bill Slim, whose book Defeat Into Victory is one of my most gifted books (for military and civilian friends alike), was clear:
“I took one look at them and thought “My God, they’re worse than I supposed.” then I saw why. I walked round the corner of that clearing and I saw officers making themselves a bivouac. They were just as exhausted as their men, but that isn’t my point. Officers are there to lead. I tell you, therefore, as officers, that you will neither eat, nor drink, nor sleep, nor smoke, nor even sit down until you have personally seen that your men have done those things. If you will do this for them, they will follow you to the end of the world. And, if you do not, I will break you.”
There comes a level of command when this is simply not realistic; probably around company / battalion command (which broadly means commanding between 100 and 600 soldiers). Senior leaders are there to think, and this demands a clear, rested head; both Slim and his “colleague” Field Marshal Montgomery were known to castigate junior officers that woke them during the night without adequate cause. Military commanders now generally operate with specific “wake-up” criteria which provides guidance to subordinates on the kind of incident that would justify breaking critical sleeping time. Modern day executives – including Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Jeff Bezos – have a similar routine. The Harvard Business Review recognises this, noting that ‘senior executives get more sleep than everyone else’.
The reflection of this in the private sector was stark throughout 2018. Tesla CEO Elon Musk had a well-publicised spat with Arianna Huffington about his long working days, with some commentators believing that he needs to step back and get some rest; there have been claims that on a macro-scale the UK’s lack of sleep is contributing to its lack of productivity; McKinsey & Co devoted one of their Five-Fifty pieces to it; and books have been published about it.
I wouldn’t attempt to give advice on how to ensure that one is getting the right amount of good quality sleep; there is more than enough information in the links included here to get started, and I am certainly no expert. What is clear, however, is that the need for sleep transcends all the differences between life in the military and life as a civilian – or life as an Oxford MBA student.Back to top of article