Are you a fox or a hedgehog? Unassuming readers who haven’t heard this question before might be eager to call themselves foxes—and they might be. What they don’t often realize, however, is that it’s often better to be a hedgehog—at least, when it comes to being a leader.
The fox vs. hedgehog question comes from an old parable, written more than 2,500 years ago by Greek poet Archilochus. In the story, the fox wants to eat the hedgehog. Every day, he waits outside the animal’s burrow and, each day devises a new way to attack the hedgehog. But, day after day, he fails—he slinks away, wounded by the hedgehog’s spines. Eventually, he’s forced to give up.
The moral of the story? According to Archilochus, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”
It might come as a shock, but the business world needs fewer foxes and more hedgehogs: people capable of looking at the bigger picture. In the parable, the fox is constantly devising scheme after scheme, failing every time. The hedgehog is simply trying to survive and it succeeds time and time again. Why? Because he understands his strength and plays to it.
Don’t get confused—the takeaway from this story isn’t to be defensive or stop thinking beyond the basics! Rather, it’s to understand your position as a leader and rely on proven, practical solutions that you know are effective. This is the advice of essayist Isaiah Berlin, who wrote The Hedgehog and the Fox in 1953 as a modern exercise in leadership thinking.
Berlin took the parable of the fox and the hedgehog to the board room. He postured that hedgehogs as leaders were mission-focused, less prone to impulsive decision-making and more attuned to how their actions fit into the broader picture. Simply put: hedgehogs stay the course when what they’re doing works. And, when they need to change, they do so with intense focus on the situation.
Today, the Hedgehog Principle is best-known thanks to its popularization by business author Jim Collins. His books Good to Great and Turning the Flywheel brought the concept of shrewd decision-making to the forefront of modern leadership training. Collins formally named the Hedgehog Principle in Good to Great and further defined it as the intersection of three important concepts:
- What you are deeply passionate about;
- What you can be the best in the world at; and
- What best drives your economic or resource engine.
Collins argues that hedgehogs look at these variables above all else, and position themselves at the centre of them. If you’re deeply passionate about Widgets, you’ll seek to work at the best Widget company in the world and, in doing so, you’ll find a way to optimize the economic potential of Widgets. In many ways, being a hedgehog is self-serving; however, it’s also selfless in the rippling effects it generates.
How do you know if you’re a hedgehog leader? Aside from juxtaposing your values against Collins’ trifecta, hedgehogs usually follow a similar series of leadership traits.
For starters, hedgehogs have a clear and ever-present focus on the big picture, especially when it comes to program and project management leadership. Everything they do relates back to the core philosophy, to drive it forward. Beyond that, hedgehogs tend to empower those around them. They’re servant leaders to others. Why? Because a rising tide lifts all boats (to use another proverb). To go along with this, hedgehogs are communicative, transparent and progressive. They understand when it’s time to go on the defensive, but they’re also not afraid to uncurl and move forward—even when there are foxes afoot.
Speaking of foxes, the Hedgehog Principle isn’t an absolute—foxes aren’t inferior leaders. They merely take a different approach. The beauty of this parable is that you can argue it both ways. Foxes are adaptable, tenacious, cunning and creative—not to mention agile and driven.
The reason the Hedgehog Principle is so named—and why the parable glorifies them—is because it’s often more difficult to be a hedgehog. Moreover, the consistency and focus of hedgehogs are exactly what’s needed at the helm of a company as it faces turbulence. Foxes may be agile; hedgehogs are mindful. They know what they do well and continue to rely on it because it’s tried, true and proven time and again. As Collins puts it in Good to Great:
“A Hedgehog Concept is not a goal to be the best, a strategy to be the best, an intention to be the best, or a plan to be the best. It is an understanding of what you can be the best at. The distinction is absolutely crucial.”