Posted: 26 Oct. 2016 05 min. read

Sleep Deprivation and Charismatic Leadership

Too Tired to Inspire or Be Inspired

How important is a good night’s sleep to performance at work? New research suggests sleep is critical – not only for the wellbeing of staff, but also for developing and sustaining high performing, inspirational and charismatic leadership. 

The most memorable, inspirational leaders of history are known for being extraordinary people who generate exceptional followership. They transform the values, ambitions, hopes and dreams of their followers from self to collective interests, united around a common purpose. Exemplars include Winston Churchill and his captivation of the English public, as well as Martin Luther King and his unique influence on the Civil Rights Movement. These are leaders who effected meaningful change in society by inspiring their followers through intellectual stimulation and emotional engagement (Shamir, House and Arthur, 1993).

Over the past 30 years, academics and practitioners alike have focused their efforts on understanding these leaders. Why? Because these leaders, who place charisma at the heart of how they lead, inspire high performing, highly motivated and highly satisfied staff (Lester, Meglino and Korsgaard, 2002). As leaders, they drive successful organisations and are themselves, high performers (Wowak et al., 2014).

It is unsurprising, then, that significant organisational effort is expended annually to develop charismatic leadership. But this begs the question: what makes a leader charismatic? Theorists have debated – is it their remarkable competence (Yukl, 2006), or perhaps their special power (Konger and Kanungo, 1998)? The research reviewed here, conducted by Professor Christopher Barnes (University of Washington), Dr Cristiano Guarana (University of Virginia), Professor Shazia Nauman (Lahore Leads University) and Professor Dejun Kong (University of Houston), reveals a hidden asset, namely sleep is central to charismatic leadership.


The aim of the research was to explore whether sleep deprivation influences charismatic leadership – both in terms of a leader’s capacity to regulate their superficial and deep emotions, as well as followers ability to be emotionally engaged by leaders.


The laboratory research involved a series of two experiments:

Experiment 1: The first experiment tested the theory that tired leaders are less charismatic. In this experiment, 88 business students were split into two groups. The first had their sleep disrupted by being asked to complete hourly surveys over the course of a night (the sleep-deprived group). The second enjoyed an uninterrupted night of sleep (the well-rested group). The subsequent morning, participants played the role of a leader delivering a speech, while researchers rated the charismatic leadership demonstrated during the delivery of speeches.

Experiment 2: The second experiment tested the theory that tired staff would see their leader as less charismatic. Importantly, this second experiment explored a key question – is it just the leader who needs a good night of sleep? Similar to the first experiment, the second examined 109 business students split into two groups – sleep deprived and well-rested. In this experiment, participants played the role of a member of staff, observing leaders delivering speeches and evaluating the charismatic leadership demonstrated during delivery of the speeches.


At a high level, the research found that sleep influences both leaders’ ability to inspired and followers’ ability to be inspired.

More particularly, those who were sleep deprived in Experiment 1 were seen as less charismatic leaders. Why? Sleep deprivation reduces the extent to which leaders can regulate their emotions at both a superficial and deep level. In other words, a lack of sleep reduces the ability of a leader to “act” charismatically. Overall, consistent with research expectations, tired leaders really were less charismatic.

But it is not all about the leader: tired followers rated leaders as less charismatic, compared to the ratings provided by those refreshed from a full night of sleep. To understand why, the researchers drew on a well-researched theory of sleep (Barnes, 2012). Central to this theory is a shared human experience, namely the more tired we are, the worse our mood. Rather than blaming a poor night of sleep, the researchers found support for the idea that followers may blame their leader for their mood – an attribution that undermines the perception of their charisma. In other words, tired staff did see their leader as less charismatic – and it may all be because of their own bad mood caused by a lack of sleep.


The most memorable, inspirational leaders of history are known for being extraordinary people, who inspire exceptional followership. This research demonstrates that a hidden asset for leaders is to ensure the simplest tenet of wellness – a good night’s sleep. Sleep deprived leaders are less inspiring and equally, the most impressive leaders will struggle to inspire sleep-deprived staff.

Work and sleep are too often conceptualised as subject to a simplistic trade-off. Should I sleep more and work less, or work more and sleep less? This research points to the relatedness of these concepts, both for leaders and staff – leaders who want to inspire others, and staff who want to be inspired by their leaders. The cycle can be virtuous or vicious.

The implications tie into workplace demands as well as wellness programs – and the silence around sleep relative to the rise of workplace health checks and fitness programs. There is an opportunity to redesign work to facilitate sufficient sleep, thinking about late night global calls, repetitive lengthy shifts and excessive demand for constant and immediate contact. The bottom line is that individual and team performance is driven by many factors, only some of which are within an organisation’s control. Given the importance of inspirational leadership – and the capacity of organisations to influence sleep deprivation – it seems an obvious issue for attention. Organisations will not only benefit from enhanced individual neurocognitive and psychological functioning of their staff, they will also benefit from a little charisma.

For more information, contact Sam Fowler.

To read the full article, see Barnes, C.M., Guarana, C.L., Nauman, S. and Kong, D.T., 2016. Too Tired to Inspire or Be Inspired: Sleep Deprivation and Charismatic Leadership.

This blog was co-authored by "Janna Ter Meer". 

Meet our author

Sam Fowler

Sam Fowler

Manager, Consulting

Sam is a Manager within Deloitte Human Capital Consulting. With cross industry experience, his work predominantly focuses on diversity and inclusion, risk and safety culture, leadership development and wellbeing, with expertise designing and conducting human-centred assessment with client organisations. As a registered Psychologist specialising in organisational psychology, Sam brings a deep and critical technical skillset to help keep Deloitte’s methodologies and approaches ahead of our clients. With a Masters in Organisational Psychology and significant research experience, Sam also brings a scientific rigour to the quality of Deloitte’s work.