Learn if You Are a Hedgehog or Fox

Or are there advantages to being both?

In 1951, Isaiah Berlin wrote his famous essay "The Hedgehog and the Fox" based upon a line from Greek poet, Archilochus, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big one.”


The tale goes: the fox is exceptionally clever and can devise a myriad of sophisticated strategies to attack the hedgehog. Every day the fox stalks the hedgehog's den waiting for the right moment to strike. Crafty, fast, and sleek—the fox looks like the sure winner.


The hedgehog, however—is a plodding creature. He goes about his day, searching for food and cleaning his burrow.


The fox—waits in silence at the juncture of the trail. The hedgehog wanders right into the path of the fox. “HA! Now I’ve got you!” thinks the fox. He leaps out, speeding—quick as lightning. The hedgehog senses danger muttering, “oh no, here we go again,” and rolls up into an impenetrable ball of sharp spikes. The fox, seeing the hedgehog defensive stance backs off.


Every day some version of this battle takes place—and despite the greater cunning of the fox, the hedgehog always wins.


This allegory has been used to compare and contrast schools of thought and/or manners of thinking. Berlin extrapolated people into two types: foxes and hedgehogs. Foxes are scattered and move on many levels, and they cannot unify concepts or vision. On the other hand, hedgehogs are reductive. They depreciate all challenges and dilemmas to simplistic ideas. For a hedgehog, anything that doesn’t relate to the unifying concept is not relevant.


While you may have a greater tendency toward being a fox or a hedgehog archetype, I don’t think these types are necessarily mutually exclusive. I see fox-ness to hedgehog-ness as an entire spectrum


So—in today’s uncertain environment, who do you think would perform better- a fox or a hedgehog?


Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great, explores the concept of hedgehogs and foxes and comes down firmly on the side of the hedgehog. Referred to in his book as the hedgehog concept, he affirms that leaders who grew their organizations from good to great were to some degree hedgehogs. In business, he theorizes, it’s essential to know the “one big thing.”


In a recession, Collins would suggest the organization apply a hedgehog-like focus on, “what drives the economic engine of your agency?” So, to a municipality, I would pose a similar question, “ What drives your engine?” Is it service delivery? Or business continuity? Perhaps, data/information?” Many have asserted that one of the government’s functions is as the ultimate broker of information. Then, of course, I’d query, “What systems do you have in place to leverage information, building a high-performance engine?”

Now let’s take a look at the fox. Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis, in his book On Grand Strategy, argues, “Hedgehogs relate everything to a single central vision through which all that they say and do has significance. Foxes, in contrast, pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way.”


Foxes study and understand risk. They realize that variables can upset the most thought-out plan. Comfortable with their ability to gauge and calculate, they employ indirect routes to make their goal.


Foxes, when they are on their game have almost psychic-levels of prediction ability. Gaddis cites a study that looked at more than 27,000 predictions (over 15 years) on politics given by 300 of the world’s top experts. It found that those who self-identified as foxes were significantly better at ‘prediction’ than the hedgehogs. Likewise, the study suggests that foxes were particularly adept at stringing together disparate sources of information.


So how would a fox fare during volatility? With the right sources of information, fairly well, I’d argue.


At the helm of an agency or an entire municipality, I envision the fox being very information-driven. BUT this information needs to be generated from multiple sources—to work best, the fox needs to exist in an interoperable environment. Systems need to be integrated and real-time and static reporting enacted. Data needs to be the driver of every decision. Once, it is put into context, data morphs into information. This information allows the fox to put their foot on the gas into the curve of the recovery—so they exit-full speed ahead, with the municipality in better shape than ever.

Finally, my conclusion to the question of which animal would perform better in a recession is, “it depends.” I do think a high-performance leader should be capable of working within these two opposing concepts simultaneously.

Which animal do you identify with—the hedgehog or the fox? Which would you rather drive your agency?

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