Sherlock Holmes
Wayne and the Wizard of Baker Street.

What does leading a remote team have to do with Sherlock Holmes?

Whether you play the violin, smoke a pipe or enjoy deerstalker hats or not, there’s one important similarity. Most of the time, when something goes wrong, we don’t witness it ourselves and have to find out what happened.

I am a big fan of “the Wizard of Baker Street” (That’s me with his statue in London this summer). One of the things I can relate to is that he is always brought in after there’s a problem. He can’t help prevent it, but must figure out what happened and who did it.

Why Remote Leaders can relate to Sherlock Holmes

If you lead a remote or hybrid team, you probably are used to discovering problems when they are brought to your attention. Sometimes others saw them before you did but didn’t alert you. Other times, they come to your attention when the problem can be ignored no longer: a deadline is blown, quality falls off, or a valued member of the team quits.

Here are some of Sherlock’s more famous quotes, and how they relate to our jobs as remote leaders:

“You see, but you do not observe.”

We are all busy. When our direct reports aren’t in the same place as us, we don’t have the evidence of watching someone in person. We are left to get our information from the past: data, reports, and performance metrics that come long after the fact. Generally, we don’t see problems unless we are looking for them.

“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.” 

One of the most common challenges for managers is confirmation bias. When Alice misses that deadline, don’t assume it’s because Alice is always late. What happened? In a way, this is a worse problem when dealing with your high performers, because it’s simple to make excuses, rather than address problems (until it’s too late).

“The dog didn’t bark. That in itself is the clue.” 

This is my favorite Sherlock quote, although it’s often boiled down to “You can’t just look for what’s there, you have to look for what isn’t.”  In remote and hybrid work, what isn’t there is often the people. Team members might withdraw, be excluded or disengage long before we notice that Bob has quit contributing on meetings.

“How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”

Okay, Sherlock can be a little judge-y, but his point is valid. This is the next step beyond confirmation bias: you have to honestly interpret the data that is there, despite your feelings or personal relationships.

“It is a mistake to confuse strangeness with mystery.”

When something seems off, you have to be proactive and investigate, but don’t get hung up on it unless there’s a real problem. Different doesn’t mean there’s an issue.

“Education never ends, Watson. It is a series of lessons with the greatest for the last.”

Even Sherlock Holmes knew he’d die without knowing everything. Don’t get so caught up in the day to day that you resist the urge to get smarter.

Sherlock likely would have made a terrible manager of a remote team; he was too arrogant and insensitive. He was smart enough to have Watson. Poor John got a bad rap from Nigel Bruce. He was a trained solder and medical doctor, and often smoothed out some of the wrinkles his partner caused. You could do worse than make sure you have a good #2, that may have been Sherlock Holmes’ most wise decision.


Wayne Turmel--The Remote Leadership Institute

Wayne Turmel
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager

Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in

Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. Wayne and Kevin’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammateoffers a roadmap for success not just for leaders, but for everyone making the transition to working remotely.

The latest book from Wayne and Kevin shows leaders how to design a team culture that has a one-team mindset and gets great results under hybrid-work conditions. You can pre-order The Long-Distance Team: Designing Your Team for Everyone’s Success now.

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