By Geraldine Markel, Ph.D.
Fatigue plays a critical part in the performance of current or aspiring leaders: it impairs leadership effectiveness, inhibiting productivity and excellence. If the leader of an organization functions without energy and enthusiasm, she or he is not a good role model. Any negative effects of the leader's performance can cascade down through the organization.
Fatigue operates as an insidious barrier to leader productivity. Like a mysterious and demonic force, Fatigue saps the energy required to engage in critical leadership functions. Leaders need stamina, mental energy, and enthusiasm to:
• Spark their creativity: to think out of the box, see the big picture, and gain long-term perspective.
• Engage in analytical thinking, problem solving, and decision making.
• Become lifelong learners. Who can read, remember, and apply information when they are too tired to focus and concentrate?
• Persevere under stressful conditions and be resilient when a crisis strikes.
Is the Fatigue Demon undermining your ability to be a leader? Has Fatigue teamed up with some of the other Demons of Distraction in your life, such as Technology, Stress, Illness/Medication, Others, Activities, Spaces or Unruly Mind?
The most common cause of fatigue is poor sleep or lack of sleep. There are between 50 and 70 million Americans living tired lives, with about 40 million of those reporting some type of sleep disorder. Unquestionably, exhaustion has a negative influence on attention, memory, mood, safety, and general performance. For example, driving under the influence of fatigue can be as devastating as driving under the influence of alcohol-and you can't be inspiring at work if you don't make it there safely.
Fatigue can also be related to leader burnout, a particular problem in the "new normal" climate of technological and economic realities. For example, there are estimates that 247 billion emails are sent per day. How many of these are delivered to a leader's mailbox? Receiving hundreds of messages each day is overwhelming and often leaves no down time. The artificial sense of urgency generated by message technology further erodes the amount and quality of sleep. One study reported that over 65 percent of respondents answered email in bed, while over 45 percent placed devices (cell phones, for example) on their nightstands--and kept the audible message alerts switched on all night long.
Regardless of the reasons underlying fatigue, feeling tired makes you more vulnerable to other Demons of Distraction. For example, the more tired you feel, the more vulnerable you are to stress and its effects. This can leave you more apt to procrastinate or avoid a tedious task, causing even more stress. Therefore, any improvement in sleep will help reduce your vulnerability to stress, and any improvement in stress management will help you be more energized and focused.
How do you know if the Fatigue Demon has become a serious threat to your leadership abilities? Due to the "24/7 Warrior" mentality in the business world, leaders may not even be aware of the extent of their fatigue and its effects--but there are telltale signs. Family members or co-workers may be the first to notice:
• Poor emotional regulation as seen with irritation, impatience, or angry outbursts
• Rigid thinking as seen in an all-or-none, now-or-never mentality
• Physical signs including slouching, walking slowly, yawning, or holding your head
• Work slippages including inaccurate, incomplete or missing work
• Forgetfulness, disorganization, inattention, and poor time management
Whether you seek others' input or they volunteer observations on your behavior, don't shoot the messenger. Denial and defensiveness won't help you regain your leadership edge-but the following steps will.
Six Steps to Stop the Downward Spiral of Leader Performance:
Step 1: Increase awareness. Ask, "How often am I running on empty? Is fatigue interfering with creativity, motivation or memory?" Keep a sleep journal; identify any problems such as insomnia, snoring, sleep apnea, etc. Ask, "What is sapping my mental energy?"
Step 2: Take action. Reorganize your sleep routine so you can be better rested. Make sleep a top priority: get to bed earlier. Consider setting an alarm an hour before bedtime as a signal to stop activities and wind down. The bedroom should be a "No Fly Zone" for electronic devices such as email alerts that unnecessarily interrupt sleep.
Step 3: Stop the constant state of overwhelm and stress. As a leader you have the legitimate power to impose the rules; say no nicely, be ruthless about delegating, and take a break or two during the day. Leaders need quiet think-time to analyze and solve problems. One strategy is to impose an electronic lockdown; a specific period of time during which technology does not distract you.
Step 4: Stop multitasking. Don't buy into the myth that it helps you: recent research indicates that it's ineffective to do two things at the same time. It drains your mental energy and leads to inaccuracies.
Step 5: Consider fatigue and safety. When fatigued, don't drive, use power tools, or undertake risky activities such as climbing ladders.
Step 6: Increase the use of exercise and stress management strategies to bolster physical and mental energy, endurance, and resilience.
Sometimes, the simpler a suggestion sounds, the more difficult it is to do. Start with one thing at a time. Even the smallest change can yield positive results.