In 2013, Dr Maiken Nedergaard, a neurologist at the University of Rochester in New York, published an article in the journal, ‘Science’ which described sleep as a waste removal system for the brain. The study showed that brain cells shrink during sleep to open up gaps between neurons and allow fluid to wash the brain clean. Dr Nedergaard said, ‘The brain only has limited energy at its disposal and it appears that it must choose between two different functional states – awake and aware or asleep and cleaning up…you can think of it like having a house party. You can either entertain the guests or clean up the house, but you can’t really do both at the same time.’
In this way, sleep clears toxic proteins known as beta-amyloid, from the brain which if left un-cleansed, may lead to various forms of dementia.
Those leaders who practice macho sleep deprivation, believing it to be something for the week and for those less driven than themselves, are storing up problems both in the present and in later life. Both Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were very vocal about sleeping only four to five hours per night. Both went on to develop dementia.
So sleep in and of itself is vitally important. But so, too is rest in general, as is solitude. The leader can only lead in relationship to other people. A solitary actor is only the leader of him or herself! Thus the leader is a person who often lacks solitude. As a result, energy levels can often be depleted via a work-life that is very crowded. I once had a manager, who was a staggeringly intelligent woman and a great leader. Rather surprisingly, she once admitted to being an extreme introvert. I had never seen her as such, given the amount of speaking events and meetings that she attended. However, being an introvert, she recharged her batteries by being alone. She once confided in me that once she arrived home on a Friday night, her favourite weekend consisted of closing the front door and only opening it again come Monday morning.
Even if you are not an introvert, the practice of solitude does much like sleep does to the brain, washing clean the system. How much of the time do we carry around with us unresolved problems from the day? How often are we still working in our minds when we have returned from work? We might be showering, putting the kids to bed, cooking, watching TV, but in our minds we are worrying, planning, analysing, shifting, feeling anger, judging colleagues, holding resentment about the boss. Sleep, solitude, meditation, or simply having fun with friends and family is a wonderful antidote to these things. We absolutely must let go and wash the system clean. Every day.
There is a wonderful Zen Buddhist parable that illustrates this lesson wonderfully:
Two monks (one old and one young) were travelling from one monastery to another. They were celibate monks, not even allowed to direct their gaze at women. After a long walk, they came to a river, which they had to cross. The river was flooded and there was no way that they would get across without getting wet. One lady was also at the banks of river, wanting to cross; she was weeping because she was afraid to cross on her own.
The Monks decided to cross the river by walking through the relatively shallow part of the river. Since the lady also needed to get to the other bank, the older monk, without much ado, carried her on his shoulders, and soon they reached the other bank, where he set her down. The lady went her way and the two monks continued their walk in silence. The other monk was really upset, finding the other monk’s act disturbing. As per their injunctions, they were not allowed to look at the woman, let alone touch a woman, and yet the other monk carried her on his shoulders and all the way across the river!
After a few hours the confused monk couldn’t stand the thought of what had happened which kept filling his mind, and so he began to berate the other monk, “We are not allowed to look at other women, not touch them, but you carried that woman.”
‘Which woman?’ replied the older monk.
“The woman you carried on your shoulders across the river!”
The other monk paused and with a smile on his lips he said, ‘I put her down when I crossed the river, are you still carrying her?’
Quoted from patrickwanis.com