Start young, sleep less: study reveals leadership formula

A study of 100 influential business leaders within a majority of sectors over the last 100 years reveals an unexpected formula for start-up success.

Rising at 5.30am, getting six hours’ sleep and starting a full time job at 22 years-old are some of the things influential business leaders have in common, according to new research.

The study of 100 of the most influential business figures of the past century, carried out by specialist recruitment company, Pareto Law, reveals that great leaders are more likely to be in their thirties when they reach their top position.

The entrepreneurial spirit starts young with leaders beginning their first full time job at 22 years-old, and reach their prime career position at 39.

Those who founded their own companies reached their peak six years earlier at an average of 33 years old. Of the 38 business founders covered in the study, 20 per cent of them were in their early twenties when they reached their peak positions at the head of their respective companies.

Reaching peak career points differs across industries, with the technology sector being the most common area for early success for 28 per cent, followed by retail (21 per cent) and politics (17 per cent).

“The peak age of a leader reveals a lot more than you’d think, says Simon Robinson, professor of Applied Professional Ethics at Leeds Beckett University. “There’s a lot of diversity here and that would reinforce the idea that there is no simple developmental line. It says to me that individual circumstances and context play a big part in creating a leader.”

Education matters

In terms of education, 53 of the 100 had Bachelor’s degrees, but only 21 per cent obtained qualifications in the next level of education, including MBAs and PhDs.

The research also examines lifestyle and career traits from influential business and world leaders of the 20th and 21st centuries, looking at people from a variety of specialist sectors across politics, technology and retail industries to find out what skills make up the ideal leader.

“The principles of great leadership haven’t changed, but the societal shift towards technology has given the leaders of tomorrow a platform to exercise vision and purpose”.

Included in the study were individuals who excel in business such as Sir Richard Branson, Jacqueline Gold and James Dyson, with the criteria that they must have a vision for their organisation and were able articulate that vision and encourage others to follow them in pursuit of their ideas.

No rest for the successful

The study found that less rest doesn’t deter tenacious leaders from achieving their goals, with people getting an average of six hours of sleep per night. When it comes to skimping on sleep, female leaders top the list. The majority of those getting less than four hours of sleep are female, including Angela Merkel and Baroness Michelle Mone.

An early start is key, according to the research. The average time to start the day is 5:30am, and the people most eager to wake were Margaret Thatcher and Indra Nooyi at 4:00am.

Despite leaders being incredibly busy, they still have time to get married and raise children, with people tying the knot at least once and having two children on average.

At a time when entrepreneurship is cool, and anyone with a website can start a business, Robinson says it’s important for people setting out to know what it takes to be a leader.“The key responsibility of a leader is creating direction and involving others when determining that direction. Whether it’s people within or outside of the organisation, all stakeholders should be involved and enabled by a leader.”

See also: Leadership traits that you can learn in an afternoon – We have all heard how the biggest CEOs rose to power, but which of their leadership skills can you learn in an afternoon?

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda Nair

Praseeda was Editor for from 2016 to 2018.

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