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Are you a Fox or a hedgehog?

Isaiah Berlin, the famous Oxford professor and president of Wolfson College, categorized writers into two groups. A writer, he said, is either a hedgehog or…

Isaiah Berlin, the famous Oxford professor and president of Wolfson College, categorized writers into two groups. A writer, he said, is either a hedgehog or a fox. A hedgehog is single-mindedly focused on one subject; foxes, on the other hand, have range, and they are focused on many.  

“The fox knows many things,” Berlin noted, “but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

Plato, for example, was a hedgehog, and Shakespeare was a fox. 

This leads to an important question: what’s the hedgehog known for and what’s the fox known for? The  hedgehog is famous for its survival and defence strategy. It has only one. When any predator fancies the hedgehog as a new tasty meal, the hedgehog doesn’t run and it hardly fights. Instead, it crawls into a spiky ball. In that position, it’s painful to look at for anyone with an imagination, let alone consumed. 

As for the fox, we know it as an animal with many tricks. Indeed, if a writer wants to give an example of a tricky animal, the fox comes to mind – hence the adjective: foxy. The fox has many gifts and many skills. For instance, it has a strong sense of smell and good night vision. 

About this, the Missouri Department of Conservation wrote:

“Their hunting skills are aided by stealthy senses of smell, hearing and night vision. Red foxes can hear the low-frequency sounds of small animals digging under the ground, leaves, or snow. They use the earth’s magnetic field to help zero on their prey before pouncing.“

Imagine being a predator with the ability to hear prey digging underground. That’s tremendous power. 

Indeed, for centuries, the tales of the fox have been told to extract morals in the instruction of children and the general society. Here’s one of them from Aesop’s fables:

One bright morning as the Fox was following his sharp nose through the wood in search of a bite to eat, he saw a Crow on the limb of a tree overhead. This was by no means the first Crow the Fox had ever seen. What caught his attention this time and made him stop for a second look, was that the lucky Crow held a bit of cheese in her beak.

“No need to search any farther,” thought sly Master Fox. “Here is a dainty bite for my breakfast.”

Up he trotted to the foot of the tree in which the Crow was sitting, and looking up admiringly, he cried, “Good morning, beautiful creature!”

The Crow, her head cocked on one side, watched the Fox suspiciously. But she kept her beak tightly closed on the cheese and did not return his greeting.

“What a charming creature she is!” said the Fox. “How her feathers shine! What a beautiful form and what splendid wings! Such a wonderful Bird should have a very lovely voice since everything else about her is so perfect. Could she sing just one song, I know I should hail her Queen of Birds.”

Listening to these flattering words, the Crow forgot all her suspicion, and also her breakfast. She wanted very much to be called Queen of Birds. So she opened her beak wide to utter her loudest caw and down fell the cheese straight into Fox’s open mouth.

“Thank you,” said Master Fox sweetly, as he walked off. “Though it is cracked, you have a voice sure enough. But where are your wits?”

Moral: The flatterer lives at the expense of those who will listen to him.

This analogy of the fox and hedgehog has been extended by others to describe great leaders: those focused on a central idea and those who are cautious and interested in the details. 

But an effective leader isn’t on the extreme. He’s a healthy dose of both animals, argues John Lewis Gaddis in his book “On Grand Strategy”. That is, he’s part hedgehog and part fox. 

Abraham Lincoln, Gaddis, the Yale professor argued, was both because he was singleminded in getting the 13th Amendment passed to free slaves. In doing that, however, he took on the persona of a fox by employing flattery, bribery and lies. 

I agree, but with a difference. Most great leaders are adaptable. But one can see the dominant fox or the dominant hedgehog in them. 

Umar bin Khattab, for instance, was a hedgehog who was obsessed with the idea of justice. “Leadership,” he was reported to have said, “is firmness without injustice and kindness without weakness.”

So what does this mean? This analogy is a simple yet useful tool to assess not only leaders but also writers. However, it has been used beyond these two areas. Jim Collins, for example, has employed it to describe great businesses and their counterparts – a comparison group which are less great. 

Collins is the author of bestselling books like “Built to Last” which is one of Jeff Bezo’s recommended books and “Good to Great.” In “Built to Last,” he said the hedgehog businesses do better than foxes because hedgehogs are laser-focused on one idea while the foxes have multiple tricks that may render them helpless when they face the spiky ball that’s the hedgehog. 

Are you a hedgehog or a fox?

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