There are few things I love more than a lively academic debate, especially when I have experience on both sides of the argument.
One such debate that rages in certain circles is that of the fox vs. the hedgehog. The comparison is based on a fragment of an ancient poem written by the Greek poet Archilochus.
He wrote, “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”
Unfortunately, since the manuscript was incomplete, there wasn’t much in terms of context to guide readers towards the ultimate meaning of this statement.
It wasn’t until political theorist, and philosopher Isaiah Berlin came across the passage that it reentered popular discourse.
In his appropriately-named 1953 book, “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” Berlin argued that hedgehogs are defined by their adherence to a single overarching idea, whereas foxes tend to draw on many diverse and occasionally only tangentially-connected concepts to form their opinions.
This concept was further simplified by author Jim Collins in his 2001 classic “Good To Great,” where he argues that the discipline and focus of the hedgehog mentality is key to success.
Others, such as psychologist Phil Tetlock believe that the skills of foxes (such as comfort with nuance and contradictions) result in a superior ability to accurately forecast the future and thus, are superior to the skills associated with hedgehogs.
The debate struck a deeply personal chord for me since I can safely say that I’ve been both a fox and a hedgehog at different points in my career. My experience and eventual transition from one to the other has left me with a distinctly different impression: to be a great leader, you must be both a fox and a hedgehog.
My co-founder and I often reminisce about our days as analysts, long before becoming entrepreneurs with a focus on operations. One of the things that we’ve both regretted is the fact that in the past we were what we call “rock throwers.”
Since we were outside consultants and analysts, it was incredibly easy for us to sit on the sidelines and act as though we had all the answers. We knew our stuff, to be sure, but we were narrow in our focus. We often scoffed at CEOs of the companies we worked with, drawing on diverse experiences and data points, and laughing to ourselves when confronted with their supreme confidence and bluster.
In short, we were foxes. It was easy for us to see what couldn’t be done, embracing realism to such an extent that every move that was taken by the leaders we covered seemed foolhardy.
Sure, we had facts, theory, and supporting data on our side, but we were boring. We could see so many potential pitfalls with any plan that inaction was often the most prudent course of action.
It was only after we began running our own company that this mentality started to change.
Embracing the big idea
The shift was felt almost immediately once we became entrepreneurs. No longer sitting on the sidelines, we had to make decisions. Suddenly, conversations shifted from why things couldn’t be done to how they could be.
We had turned into hedgehogs overnight. We had a single grand ambition: to revolutionize small business in America. It was a bold idea and one that required the steadfast optimism and can-do attitude that only an entrepreneur can muster.
We believed that any obstacle we encountered could be overcome, no matter how painful. All that was required was a steadfast commitment to our goal and confidence in our decisions.
Our sudden shift from fox to hedgehog mentality was jarring, and soon we found ourselves falling into the same traps that ensnare so many would-be disruptors. Challenges that we thought we could push through became insurmountable, and we saw ourselves doubling down on lackluster strategies merely because they were ours.
To be frank, we were on the path to failure. In an instant, all of the insecurities and second-guessing associated with the fox mentality came flooding back in, and we were ready to call it a day.
Then, a lesson from the ancient past returned and changed everything.
A lesson from the past
I’ve made no secret that I’m a fan of the humanities. I believe that contemporary business lessons can be gleaned from the stories of our past, and therefore tend to gravitate toward ancient texts rather than modern business books.
My epiphany came when I was reading Herodotus’ The Histories and his depiction of Xerxes’ invasion of Greece.
It’s a long and detailed story, but I’ll do my best to summarize the essential elements that led to my realization.
When the Persian King Xerxes, known as the King of Kings, decided to avenge his father’s defeat at Marathon by invading Greece, his uncle and advisor Artabanus was staunchly opposed.
Artabanus was a fox, focusing on everything that could go wrong and the prices that would have to be paid: stretched supplies, weakened morale, challenges associated with crossing long distances.
Xerxes, on the other hand, was a hedgehog, believing so thoroughly in his godhood and the mission at hand that he could not conceive of defeat.
Ultimately, Xerxes pushed forward with the invasion, only to be hampered by both Leonidas’ group of 300 Spartan warriors at the battle of Thermopylae and eventually defeated by Themistocles and the Greeks at the naval battle of Salamis.
So Xerxes abandoned much of his army and went back home in defeat. The overconfident hedgehog was defeated. But this did not mean that Artabanus was the clear ideological winner. Despite being right about his warnings, he was still largely forgotten by history. Sure, under his direction the Persians might not have been defeated, but they still wouldn’t have won.
The great tragedy of Xerxes and Artabanus is that they were both wrong. One was the quintessential hedgehog, while the other was a steadfast fox. Apart, both offered a path to failure. Together, however, they could have succeeded.
That’s when it dawned on me. To become a successful leader, I had to become both a fox and a hedgehog.
A First-rate intelligence
It was F. Scott Fitzgerald who remarked “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”
The fox vs. hedgehog debate is pointless. Instead, leaders must strive to embody the best of both philosophies and hold the opposing ideas in mind at the same time.
This combined philosophy saved our company. We were able to change our perspectives and strike a delicate balance between our unrelenting optimism and the nuanced approach that we perfected in our earlier careers.
This ultimately helped us to say no to specific opportunities and strategies while still possessing the ability to make big, bold bets. It may seem like a subtle shift, but it enabled us to abandon under-performing lines of business, pivot to more profitable lines of business, and ultimately survive nearly ten years on.
So, to answer the question posed in this headline, no, you don’t have to choose between being a fox or a hedgehog. The key to success is to embody the best of both.
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