Are you the kind of person who pursues many ends at the same time and sees the world in all its complexity?  Or do you simplify your world into a single organizing idea, a basic principle or concept that unifies and guides everything?

I was reminded of this dichotomy the other day, when I came across a reference to ‘the fox and the hedgehog’ in a management blog. Do you know about it? Based on a Greek fable, it’s about the importance of having a clear vision, a single big idea about your life.

Jim Collins made the story famous in his book, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t. He quotes the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, who  divided the world into hedgehogs and foxes in his famous essay (called, you guessed it,  ‘The Hedgehog and the Fox’), concluding that ‘the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.’

As Collins goes on to say, ‘The fox is a cunning creature, able to devise a myriad of complex strategies for sneak attacks upon the hedgehog. Day in and day out, the fox circles around the hedgehog’s den, waiting for the perfect moment to pounce. Fast, sleek, beautiful, fleet of foot, and crafty—the fox looks like the sure winner.

The hedgehog, on the other hand, is a dowdier creature, looking like a genetic mix-up between a porcupine and a small armadillo. He waddles along, going about his simple day, searching for lunch and taking care of his home.

The fox waits in cunning silence at the juncture in the trail. The hedgehog, minding his own business, wanders right into the path of the fox. “Aha, I’ve got you now!” thinks the fox. He leaps out, bounding across the ground, lightning fast. The little hedgehog, sensing danger, looks up and thinks, “Here we go again. Will he ever learn?” Rolling up into a perfect little ball, the hedgehog becomes a sphere of sharp spikes, pointing outward in all directions. The fox, bounding toward his prey, sees the hedgehog defense and calls off the attack. Retreating back to the forest, the fox begins to calculate a new line of attack. Each day, some version of this battle between the hedgehog and the fox takes place, and despite the greater cunning of the fox, the hedgehog always wins.

Berlin extrapolated from this little parable to divide people into two basic groups: foxes and hedgehogs. Foxes pursue many ends at the same time and see the world in all its complexity. They are “scattered or diffused, moving on many levels,” says Berlin, never integrating their thinking into one overall concept or unifying vision. Hedgehogs, on the other hand, simplify a complex world into a single organizing idea, a basic principle or concept that unifies and guides everything. It doesn’t matter how complex the world, a hedgehog reduces all challenges and dilemmas to simple—indeed almost simplistic—hedgehog ideas. For a hedgehog, anything that does not somehow relate to the hedgehog idea holds no relevance.’

The point of all this for Collins is that a simple clear guiding principle or strategy is essential, beating a scattergun approach every time.

BUT, surely you can take this too far. Yes, I think vision is vital. Yes, I think having a guiding principle in life is vital. But so is having a range of options, possibilities, ideas and approaches. Nothing could be worse than being fixed on one solution or possibility, with nowhere to move if things change, or someone (a badger, perhaps?) with a better vision comes along.

It’s also true that Isaiah Berlin pointed to some brilliant foxes in his essay – Herodotus, Moliere, Goethe and Shakespeare among many. Oh, and I checked – in the real world foxes in fact do kill hedgehogs, often.

So, where does that leave our story? Is a hedgehog always better than a fox? What do you think?

(A fox with a vision…now that would be interesting.)

Joanna Maxwell

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