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Why we need to lead like Sherlock Holmes

We know that the challenge of leadership has shifted in the last few years to a greater state of uncertainty, ambiguity, and changeability than we have ever seen.

The implication of this is that decision making and judgement is increasingly being devolved to the middle – to the B-Suite.

While Korn Ferry states that a tolerance for ambiguity is a major driver of corporate performance, B-Suite leaders are struggling with it – second-guessing their way through each day, making decisions and using judgement in highly ambiguous and uncertain circumstances with decreasing levels of confidence.

They are basically being asked to operate like a detective – and this is where Sherlock Holmes can help.  After all, he was a master at problem-solving and decision-making, particularly when the circumstances were ambiguous, information was incomplete or changeable.

Here are 6 of his methodologies that leaders should master today:

  1. Deduction – the art of elimination
    In today’s ambiguous landscape, there are often more unknowns than there are knowns.  As a detective, Holmes’ skill was in using the gaps between the facts just as successfully as he used the facts themselves. Not being as brilliant as Holmes, I use a simple known/unknown model to help me harness the unknown, the uncertain and the absent.  It’s a simple process of deductive reasoning to help me eliminate available options to reach a decision.
    “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?” — Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of Four
  2. Inference – the art of observation
    Dan Kahnman tells us that our brains are machines for jumping to conclusions.  We routinely accept what we see, apply our own assumptions to it, and conclude why it has happened.  We rarely take the time out to observe, question and test.  The result is that we base important decisions and relationships on incorrect assumptions, with sometimes catastrophic results.
    “You see, but you do not observe.” — Arthur Conan Doyle, A Scandal in Bohemia 
  3. Cogitation – the art of deep thinking
    Frank Partnoy’s book ‘Wait: The Art & Science of Delay’ makes a very strong case for deliberate procrastination.  B-Suite leaders in particular are so programmed to be busy that the idea of stopping to think is anathema to them.  Yet taking action with too little consideration is a major waste of effort and resources that we can ill-afford.
    “It is quite a three pipe problem, and I beg that you won’t speak to me for fifty minutes.” – Arthur Conan Doyle, The Red-Headed League
  4. Induction – the art of gathering data
    Even testing a theory can mean your brain is already hardwired to find evidence that supports that theory and to disregard that which does not. To remain neutral gives you a much better chance of making a data-driven decision rather than a values or assumptions based decision.
    “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” — Arthur Conan Doyle, A Scandal in Bohemia
  5. Distraction – the art of switching off
    Holmes famously had his violin to help him switch off and get some distance. Forcing your mind to take a step back is a tough thing to do. It seems counterintuitive to walk away from a problem that you want to solve, but it’s an important trick to create deeper levels of reflection.  Distancing has been proven to improve cognitive performance.
    “One of the most remarkable characteristics of Sherlock Holmes was his power of throwing his brain out of action and switching all his thoughts on to lighter things whenever he had convinced himself that he could no longer work to advantage.” – Arthur Conan Doyle, The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans
  6. Focus on what is relevant
    With more information than ever at our fingertips, how do we know what to focus on and what to ignore? There are plenty of problems out there that are the wrong ones to focus on – what Holmes might call a red herring.
    “The principal difficulty in your case,” remarked Holmes, in his didactic fashion, “lay in the fact of there being too much evidence. What was vital was overlaid and hidden by what was irrelevant.” – Arthur Conan Doyle, The Naval Treaty

Our B-Suite leaders urgently need the skills to lead from the middle with impact, and learning to confidently make decisions and use judgement in highly ambiguous and uncertain circumstances is an area worth investing in.

Written by Rebecca Houghton. Have you read?
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Rebecca Houghton
Rebecca Houghton, author of ‘Impact: 10 Ways to Level up your Leadership’ ($29.95), is a Leadership and Talent Expert and founder of BoldHR. Rebecca builds B-Suite leaders with C-Suite impact by working at an organisational, team and individual level. Her passion is helping to evolve how leaders think, take action and relate to others, working with leaders and leadership teams to achieve greater impact.

Rebecca Houghton is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. You can follow her on LinkedIn.