Wearing your own exhaustion “as a badge of honor” is not a sign of true leadership, Arianna Huffington said in a commencement speech at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy on Saturday.
In fact, failing to take care of your personal health signals an inability to “organize, ruthlessly prioritize, and impose order on chaos,” Huffington said.
“Please recognize that as science now makes clear, you’ll be able to fulfill all your dreams and obligations much more effectively — and with much more creativity and joy — if you regularly take time to recharge and refuel,” she added.
The editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post was, of course, speaking about getting enough sleep, which is the theme of her latest book, The Sleep Revolution. She pointed out that ambition can sometimes get the best of bright people, causing them to make poor choices that diminish their chances of accomplishing their goals.
“Right now, wherever you look around the world, you see smart leaders — in every field — making terrible decisions,” Huffington said. “What they’re lacking is not IQ, but wisdom. Which is no surprise; it has never been harder to tap into our inner wisdom, because in order to do so, we have to disconnect from all our omnipresent devices and distractions, and reconnect with ourselves.”
Philosophers have often said that to “truly know the world, you have to first know yourself,” Huffington reminded her audience at Fletcher.
“So if you feel like there’s just too much to be done, it’s important to remind yourselves of something our modern culture seems to have forgotten: That there are two threads running through our lives. One is pulling us into the world to achieve and make things happen, the other is pulling us back from the world to nourish, replenish and refuel ourselves,” she said.
“If we ignore the second thread, it is much harder to connect with our deepest courage and wisdom, the most essential building blocks of leadership.”
You can read Huffington's entire speech below:
Dean Stavridis, members of the faculty, proud parents, family, and friends, and, above all, the graduating class of 2016, I'm deeply honored and grateful that you have invited me to be a part of such a special moment in your lives.
And I don’t know if you can tell, but I have a slight accent, in fact a Greek accent, which means I’m obligated to comment on the fact that your dean — who has had an incredible career in the Navy, as a thought leader and as a dean of this school — is also, in addition to all these great things, Greek — though, suspiciously, with no trace of an accent. But not to worry, I have enough accent for the both of us.
This is, of course, an extraordinary time — not just in your own lives, though I know it is certainly that — but in all of our lives. When you picture the world you'll be graduating into after your last Fletcher Follies, it’s a world of both huge challenges and incredible possibilities — where the vastly accelerated pace of technology is creating constant disruptions that require both resilience and wisdom. And because we can’t predict all of the downstream consequences of these disruptions, leadership — which includes being able to remain serene and imperturbable in the middle of all crises and to see the icebergs before they hit the Titanic — is more important than ever.
And that’s where you and the Fletcher “Mafia” come in. As graduates, or very soon to be graduates, of the oldest graduate school of international affairs in the United States, you are uniquely poised to become the leaders the world needs to meet these challenges. So, I don’t want to put too much of a burden on you — on top of student loans, the pressure to find a job and to find a place to live — but, bottom line, the world needs you. In fact, the world is putting out the bat signal and counting on you to answer the call — and the best part is, you don’t have to choose an alter ego or wear a funny suit.
As Fletcher graduates, your opportunity, and your responsibility, is truly singular as you head out into the world. And what I want to urge you to do today is pay special attention to the building blocks of leadership, which will help you widen and redefine what leadership is. Because being the leaders the world so desperately needs today will require you to go not just onward and outward, but also inward to tap into your own wisdom.
Right now, wherever you look around the world, you see smart leaders — in every field — making terrible decisions. What they’re lacking is not IQ, but wisdom. Which is no surprise; it has never been harder to tap into our inner wisdom, because in order to do so, we have to disconnect from all our omnipresent devices and distractions, and reconnect with ourselves.
The great Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who was a leader in his determination to bravely tell the truth, once wrote that “If you wanted to put the world to rights, who would you begin with? Yourself or others?”
And I know all of you want to put the world to rights — that’s why you’re at this wonderful, essential institution. To put it another way, in the words of another essential — though not as admired — institution, the airline industry, “Secure your own oxygen mask first before helping others.”
And this is something our leaders have forgotten. In fact, they do just the opposite — in order to signal their dedication to the people or organizations they’re leading, they burn themselves out and proudly proclaim their refusal to sleep, to take time to recharge and renew themselves. As a result, we end up with leaders leading at less — often much, much less — than full capacity. And this of course is stunningly clear to anyone masochistic enough to be closely following the 2016 election.
But as recent scientific findings make unambiguously clear, having the discipline to take time to recharge, including getting enough sleep, is essential for all the key elements of leadership: decision-making, impulse control, the ability to learn and take in new information, to act with reason and judgment instead of reacting with emotion. In short: wisdom.
As Dean Stavridis wrote recently in an essay titled “Sleep is a Weapon” — Greek minds do think alike — there is power, including military power, in sleep. He recounts as just one example a tragic incident where 200 citizens were killed by a military mistake caused by sleep deprivation.
And we actually do have evidence of how productive it is when a political leader does recognize the creative powers of recharging. In 1940, President Franklin Roosevelt did something that would be inconceivable in today’s political climate. To think through the monumental question of whether America should enter the war, rather than putting out photos of himself and his team with their sleeves rolled up pulling all-nighters, FDR announced that he would instead be taking a 10-day vacation, sailing around the Caribbean on a navy ship. His wife Eleanor wrote him a letter that read, “I think of you sleeping … and I hope getting rest from the world.”
And as Roosevelt’s aide Harry Hopkins later said, “I began to get the idea that he was refueling, the way he so often does when he seems to be resting and carefree.” The result of Roosevelt’s refueling was the $50 billion Lend-Lease program, in which the United States would lend arms and supplies to Great Britain and be paid back after the war in kind. Or as Roosevelt’s speechwriter Robert Sherwood put it, “One can only say that FDR, a creative artist in politics, had put in his time on this cruise evolving the pattern of a masterpiece.”
In fact, FDR’s ally and counterpart, Winston Churchill, also knew the value of renewal. Indeed, he’s credited by some with coining the term “power nap.” And evidently, he was on to something. To make up for having to often work late into the night, Churchill was disciplined about taking his afternoon naps on the cot he kept in his war room a few blocks from 10 Downing Street.
This is how Churchill himself vividly described his habit of recharging:
“You must sleep sometime between lunch and dinner, and no halfway measures. Take off your clothes and get into bed. That’s what I always do. Don’t think you will be doing less work because you sleep. That’s a foolish notion held by people who have no imaginations. You will be able to accomplish more.”
So if you feel like there’s just too much to be done, it’s important to remind yourselves of something our modern culture seems to have forgotten: That there are two threads running through our lives. One is pulling us into the world to achieve and make things happen, the other is pulling us back from the world to nourish, replenish and refuel ourselves. If we ignore the second thread, it is much harder to connect with our deepest courage and wisdom, the most essential building blocks of leadership. As many a philosopher, from every tradition, has said, to truly know the world, you have to first know yourself. To quote just one of them, Lao Tzu, “Knowing others is knowledge; knowing yourself is wisdom.”
And when we access our courage and wisdom, and put them at the service of leadership, we will have the judgment and fortitude to be true to ourselves and to speak truth to power when it most matters. And it’s never mattered more than now. Will we rise to the occasion to speak the truth, or will we shrink from the moment and retreat to safe platitudes and euphemisms? That is now, and has always been, the first test of leadership. As Harold Pinter said in his Nobel acceptance speech, “the search for the truth can never stop. It cannot be adjourned, it cannot be postponed. It has to be faced, right there, on the spot.”
And as we see now, some are facing it and some are not. At a moment when this country is on the cusp of legitimizing the most unqualified presidential nominee in U.S. history, some leaders are speaking the truth, and some are holding back. In the U.K., conservative Prime Minister David Cameron rose to the occasion, calling Donald Trump’s plan to institute a religious test to ban all Muslims from the United States exactly what it is: “divisive, stupid and wrong.” That’s bold. That’s true. And that’s leadership.
The alternative is to pretend that the truth is always in the middle, and that our job is to present two sides to everything. But not every story has two sides, and the truth is often found on one side or the other. The Earth is not flat. Evolution is a fact. Global warming is a fact. And there are definitely not two sides to the truth that instituting a religious test to enter a country founded on religious freedom is “divisive, stupid, and wrong.” Claiming that Mexico is sending us rapists, inciting violence at rallies, or claiming that President Obama was not born in the United States — we know these are all false and all wrong — and if we don’t say so clearly and unequivocally, that’s how these insidious falsehoods become whitewashed and mainstreamed.
I was delighted to meet the Director of the Edward R. Murrow Center earlier. And I asked him how Murrow would have dealt with Trump. “He would have skewered him,” he replied. The New York Times recently called Trump’s racism a “reductive approach to ethnicity,” and said that Trump’s attitude toward women is “complex” and “defies simple categorization,” as if sexism is suddenly as complicated as string theory. In the name of Edward R. Murrow, good journalism and the truth, can the media stop using euphemisms and stop trying to normalize Trump?
Of course, in many ways, the world is always in some kind of emergency. And you are our diplomatic first responders. It’s right there in the Fletcher mission statement, “to educate professionals from around the world and to prepare them for positions of leadership and influence in the national and international arenas.” In the words of Dean Stavridis, that means training graduates to know the world. “The challenges we face in this turbulent 21st century,” he says, “quite literally transcend borders — we must be ready to connect in every sense of the word.”
So that’s what I want to explore today — connecting… in every sense of the word, and transcending borders both external and internal. Connecting not just with the world, but, just as important, with yourselves. Many leaders today have lost sight of that. In today’s buzzing, blinking, and notification-soaked world, it’s very easy to allow your attention and your essence to be frittered away in a million different ways. And when we are exhausted and disconnected, that’s when we are more likely to make our biggest mistakes.
To quote a modern practitioner of the political arts, Bill Clinton, “every important mistake I’ve made in my life, I’ve made because I was too tired.” He did not specify which mistakes, but as David Maraniss wrote in his biography of Clinton: “Clinton had been sleeping only four to five hours a night since a professor said in college that many great leaders of the past had gotten by that way.” This aversion to sleep — which is really at its heart an aversion to disconnecting from the world, our projects and to-do lists to reconnect with ourselves — may well have played a part in several lapses in Clinton’s presidential judgment, including his handling of the issue of gays in the military — now widely considered to be one of the low points at the beginning of his two-term presidency.
And another example — very much in the news today — is Alexander Hamilton. He is, of course, the subject and namesake of the biggest Broadway hit musical of our lifetime, nominated for 16 Tony Awards, the musical for which The New York Times suggested people “mortgage their houses and lease their children to acquire tickets.”
But as much press as the show has rightly gotten, one angle that deserves more attention is how it shows the value of making time to renew and replenish ourselves. Hamilton, it turns out, wasn't just the founding father of American banking, he was also the founding father — and the first fully documented case — of American political burnout.
Ron Chernow, the author of the biography on which the musical is based, depicts a man who never slowed down. “This intensely driven man,” Chernow writes, “had a mind that throbbed incessantly with new ideas.” But how much better would his adopted country have been if he had given more time to his mind and his body to refuel before he hit a wall of burnout?
This theme of constant, ceaseless work — along with the inevitable consequences — comes through resoundingly in the musical as well. Again and again, Hamilton is presented as a leader ultimately overwhelmed by the pressure of all the work ahead of him. “And there’s a million things I haven’t done,” he sings, “but just you wait, just you wait.”
As you move onto a new, thrilling chapter in your lives, you may have a similar feeling — of all the millions of things you haven’t done. But please recognize that as science now makes clear, you’ll be able to fulfill all your dreams and obligations much more effectively — and with much more creativity and joy — if you regularly take time to recharge and refuel.
There’s even a song in the “Hamilton” musical entirely devoted to this theme and appropriately called “Non-Stop.” I promise I’m not going to sing — I don’t want to cause a stampede. So bear with me. “Why do you write like you’re running out of time? Write day and night like you’re running out of time?” asks Aaron Burr. To which the ensemble answers: “Every day you fight like you’re running out of time, like you’re running out of time. Are you running out of time?”
And, in a sense, he was. The sex scandal that would derail his career and indirectly affect the decisions that led to his own premature death was looming. Sleep deprivation had left Hamilton vulnerable to Maria Reynolds’ plot to seduce him and then blackmail him. In “Say No To This,” Hamilton is aware of his weakened state:
“I hadn’t slept in a week,” he sings,
“I was weak, I was awake
You never seen a bastard orphan
More in need of a break.”
Alexander Hamilton was only 49 years old when he died, in the infamous duel with Aaron Burr. What connection did his burnout have with his untimely death? When you find yourself walking to a duel at dawn — after you had lost your son in a duel three years earlier — it’s fair to ask if you’re mustering all the wisdom you’re capable of. And perhaps if he’d listened to his wife Eliza’s advice to “take a break,” he’d have had more time to build the nation he was so devoted to.
Burnout among our political leaders has proved as enduring as Hamilton’s bank and other parts of his legacy. In fact, our leaders actually brag about it. Our political campaigns constantly feature candidates presenting themselves as ceaselessly working — as if that’s a good thing. In mid-April, Ted Cruz sent out a fundraising email proclaiming that he was sacrificing his health and his sleep because he was, “fighting morning and night for the future of the country.” Isn’t it time our leaders stop thinking we want them to be sick and exhausted all of the time? No leader would smoke in front of a camera, but most of our leaders clearly declare — and show it in their faces — how depleted they are.
Yet, one recent scientific study showed that even moderate sleep deprivation can leave you with levels of cognitive impairment roughly equivalent to being legally drunk. And yet no campaign would feature a candidate saying, “Vote for me, because I structure my life so that I make all my decisions while effectively drunk.” (Actually, that might explain a lot about this year’s race, but that’s a different speech.)
In fact, for even further evidence of the connection between leadership and sleep and recharging, there was a recent article by McKinsey, the management consulting firm, about just that in the Harvard Business Review titled, “There’s A Proven Link Between Effective Leadership And Getting Enough Sleep.” Now, if somebody even a year ago had showed me a piece written by McKinsey consultants saying that the way for executives to be better leaders is to sleep more, and not less, and that McKinsey would actually have a sleep specialist on staff, I would have assumed the piece was in The Onion.
But the piece is real, and so is the science it’s based on. The authors point to the science showing that the prefrontal cortex — the part of our brain that’s the source of leadership, of problem solving, of organizing, of decision-making, of building teams, is also the part of the brain particularly affected by sleep deprivation. One study found that participants who had a good night’s sleep were twice as likely to come up with a hidden or hard to find shortcut to a given task than those who were sleep deprived. Another study they mention showed that sleep deprived brains are more susceptible to misinterpreting emotional cues from those around them and overreacting to emotional situations. Not exactly what you want in a leader of any kind.
And yet our entire political system seems almost engineered to guarantee that kind of exhaustion. Hillary Clinton has said that during her time as secretary of state, she’d be so exhausted as she prepared to meet with world leaders that she would sometimes be “standing there and digging my fingernails into my palm to keep myself awake” so she could answer questions on behalf of our country. And this is actually celebrated in our misguided world as a feat of endurance. But is this really the best place from which to lead? Even if it results in our leaders’ collapse and concussion, as happened with Secretary Clinton? It’s no wonder that, after Hillary Clinton stepped down as secretary of state in 2012 — having logged nearly 1 million miles flying to 112 different countries — she told The New York Times that her most immediate goal was to see whether she could get “untired.”
There is a cultural shift happening, and you Fletcher graduates can help accelerate it. Instead of wearing your exhaustion as a badge of honor and a sign of how important and how much in demand you are, you can recognize that it’s actually a sign of an inability to organize, ruthlessly prioritize, and impose order on chaos — all essential building blocks of leadership.
To see the icebergs before we hit them requires a deeper kind of vision. It requires us to be aware of how we can be, in the words of psychologist Daniel Kahneman, “blind to our own blindness.” We can’t see everything, we can’t control the world and we can’t prevent the unexpected. But we can control ourselves, we can maximize our inner resources to deal with the unexpected, we can make the most of our intuition, our conscience, our wisdom.
Because, contrary to our collective delusion, our successful leaders are successful not because of their burnout, but in spite of it. And you Fletcher graduates have the opportunity to redefine leadership to include a deep understanding and knowledge of yourselves so that you have the clarity to recognize the truth, the wisdom to live by it and the fearlessness to shout it from the rooftops, no matter what.