The Hedgehog and the Fox: Isaiah Berlin and The Dualism of Leadership—DeMarco Banter

For years I have struggled with the notion of what makes a better leader—one who is a master of a skill or one who is more of a generalist.  Interesting, in the military, we expect our junior leaders to be masters of their skill and then as leaders gain in seniority—they are expected to be a “generalist.”  But, is more to it than age and experience?  

I thought I might begin a series on the dualism of leadership—as this concept seems to run deep in current and even ancient literature.  Of course—as in all things, there is a very good chance I am 100% wrong, but as my good friend George Box said in 1978 at a statistics workshop:

“All models are wrong but some are useful”

What kind of leader are you?  It seems it might be useful to know.  I am not sure many think of Isaiah Berlin as a leadership author, but increasingly it seems we need to go a bit deeper than the Self-Help or management section of Amazon to find enduring leadership truths.  Isaiah Berlin is a philosopher who wrote The Hedgehog and the Fox in 1953. However, Berlin later said, “I never meant it very seriously. I meant it as a kind of enjoyable intellectual game, but it was taken seriously. Every classification throws light on something”.  

The title is a reference to a fragment attributed to the Ancient Greek poet Archilochus who posited “a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one big thing”.  

Why would a fox know many things? The fox appears in many cultures, usually in. However, there are slight variations in their depictions. In Western and Persian folklore, foxes are symbols of cunning and trickery—a reputation derived especially from their reputed ability to evade hunters. These traits either making the fox a nuisance in the story, a misunderstood hero, or a devious villain.

In Asian folklore, foxes are depicted as familiar spirits possessing magic powers. Similar to in Western folklore, foxes are portrayed as mischievous, usually tricking other people, with the ability to disguise as an attractive female human. However, there are other depictions of foxes as mystical, sacred creatures that can either bring wonder or ruin.  Ninetailed foxes appear in Chinese folklore, literature, and mythology and they can be a good or a bad omen.T

Hedgehogs can roll into a tight ball in self-defense, causing all of the spines to point outwards.The hedgehog’s back contains two large muscles that control the position of the quills. When the creature is rolled into a ball, the quills on the back protect the tucked face, feet, and belly, which are not quilled. The various species are prey to different predators: while forest hedgehogs are prey primarily to birds and ferrets, smaller species like the long-eared hedgehog are prey to foxes, wolves, and mongooses.

As we can see “a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one big thing”.  

Berlin expands upon this idea to divide writers and thinkers (and I would offer leaders) into two categories: hedgehogs, who view the world through the lens of a single defining idea (examples given include Plato, Lucretius, Dante Alighieri, Blaise Pascal, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, Henrik Ibsen, Marcel Proust and Fernand Braudel), and foxes, who draw on a wide variety of experiences and for whom the world cannot be boiled down to a single idea (examples given include Herodotus, Aristotle, Desiderius Erasmus, William Shakespeare, Michel de Montaigne, Molière, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Aleksandr Pushkin, Honoré de Balzac, James Joyce and Philip Warren Anderson).  

Berlin turns to Leo Tolstoy, and contends at first glance, Tolstoy escapes definition into one of the two groups. He postulates that while Tolstoy’s talents are those of a fox, his beliefs are that of a hedgehog and so Tolstoy’s own assessments of his work are misleading.

In the final few paragraphs of the essay, Berlin reasserts his thesis that Tolstoy was by nature a fox but by conviction a hedgehog and goes on to say that the division within himself caused him great pain at the end of his life.

What does the mean for leaders?  Who wins the fox or the hedgehog? 

In the book Founding Brothers about key figures of the American Revolution, Joseph Ellis, uses Berlin’s “Hedgehog and Fox” concept in evaluating George Washington, noting that “Washington was an archetypal hedgehog. And the one big thing he knew was that America’s future as a nation lay to the West, in its development over the next century of a continental empire,” which was one of the reasons, according to Ellis, of Washington being devoted to construction of canals. 

James C. Collins refers to the story in his book Good to Great where he clearly shows his preference towards Hedgehog mentality.

Legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin‘s book Justice for Hedgehogs (2011), argues the case for a single, overarching, and coherent framework of moral truth, takes its title from Berlin’s conceit of the hedgehog. 

In his book Wittgenstein’s Place in Twentieth-Century Analytic Philosophy, Oxford philosopher Peter Hacker uses this metaphor to contrast Berlin’s Tolstoy, “a fox by nature, but a hedgehog by conviction”, with the Austrian-born philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was “by nature a hedgehog, but after 1929 transformed himself, by great intellectual and imaginative endeavor, into a paradigmatic fox”. 

In his 2012 The New York Times bestselling book The Signal and the Noise, forecaster Nate Silver urges readers to be “more foxy” after summarizing Berlin’s distinction. Silver’s news website, fivethirtyeight.com, when it was launched in March 2014, also adopted the fox as its logo “as an allusion to” Archilochus’ original work.   

A personal favorite, In 2018, the author John Lewis Gaddis refers to Berlin’s essay in his book On Grand Strategy. It seems Gaddis implies the better way is to be a versatile fox, not a single-minded obsessed hedgehog, or to embrace Machiavelli’s virtues of imitation, adaptation and approximation. Gaddis argues, the best generals live with and react to paradoxes,. The worst ignore or seek to undo them.

What do you think—fox of hedgehog?  Great leaders must be both a hedgehog and a fox, comfortable in juggling combinations, contradictions, and contrasts; remember that your aspiration maybe limitless but your capabilities are constrained, so balance ends and means. Political psychologist Philip E. Tetlock’s 15-year studies showed that foxes do better at predicting the future of world politics. But too fox-like also paralyzes a leader from uncertainties, who must appear to know what to do even when they don’t.

It may almost be a Yin and Yang type of dualism here—we need both to be whole.  I do believe leaders tend to one side or the other (fox or hedgehog), but the key is knowing which side we lean toward and adjusting for the other. Leaders should attempt be both a fox and a hedgehog. Gaddis posits we go with the flow, “[h]aving determined your destination, you set sails, motivate rowers, adjust for winds and currents, avoid shoals and rocks, allow for surprises, and expend finite energy efficiently.” In Grand Strategy Gaddis, quoting Spielberg’s film Lincoln, “[i]f in pursuit of your destination, you…achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp…what’s the use of knowing true north?” Woodrow Wilson—a hedgehog—a builder with a grand vision, disappointed his generation in the aftermath of WWI, but Roosevelt—a fox—the “juggler”, surpassed his generation’s expectation. Roosevelt once said: “I may be entirely inconsistent if it will help win the war.” Perhaps Roosevelt had “a second-class intellect” but he definitely passed Fitzgerald’s test for first-rate intelligence.

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.”

Hedgehogs, Gaddis quotes, “relate every- thing 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.” the hedgehog’s sense of direction and the fox’s sensitivity to surroundings.” By the end of the book he describes individuals able to combine the two qualities as “foxes with compasses”

Fox or Hedgehog—what do you think?

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