A Guide to Dysfunctional Management and the Evil Workplace
June 7th, 2014 by William

The Hedgehog and the Fox

In 1953 Isaiah Berlin wrote an essay called “The Hedgehog and The Fox.” The story is based upon the ancient Greek poem believed to have been written by Archilochus. The essence of the essay is that: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” In Berlin’s story, a cunning and brilliant fox sets his mind on eating a hedgehog. He spends hours plotting the perfect attack, always devising complex strategies for sneak attacks upon the hedgehog. Reminds you of Wile E. Coyote don’t it? Day in and day out, the fox cases out the hedgehog’s den waiting for the perfect moment to pounce. Fast and crafty, one would think the fox the odds-on favorite to win. The hedgehog, on the other hand, looks like a cross between a porcupine and a small armadillo. He waddles along, going about his day, single-mindedly searching for food and taking care of his den.

Every day, the fox waits in cunning silence to intercept the hedgehog as he goes about his business. The hedgehog−who has an amazing grasp for the obvious−has the fox all figured out. Minding his own business, he wanders right into the path of the fox. “Aha, I’ve got you now!” thinks the fox. As the fox strikes out, the hedgehog, sensing danger looks up and thinks, “Here we go again.” 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.

The take-away from this story is that Berlin believes people can be divided into two basic groups: foxes and hedgehogs. Foxes draw on a wide variety of experiences and pursue many ends at the same time, i.e., they believe themselves to be good multitaskers. Berlin would describe them as, “scattered or diffused, moving on many levels.” In other words they never really unify their thinking into one overall concept or vision. Hedgehogs, on the other hand, view the world through a magnifying lens, simplifying a complex world into a single organizing idea, a basic principle or concept that unifies and guides everything they do. 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.

To succeed in modern business−to survive actually−you need to be both a hedgehog and a fox. The hedgehog thinks inside the box, the fox outside the box. At times you need to be single-minded, focused and tireless to fight through the stupidity and moronic behaviors of co-workers and bosses however; you also need to be insatiably curious, fast-moving and open to new ideas and approaches to everyday issues that arise.

Good-to-Great author, Jim Collins advises us that organizations need to build their culture on self-disciplined people−hedgehogs. As Collins would tell us, great leaders first get the right people on the bus and then they figure out where to drive the bus. And they do this without throwing anyone under the bus. They focus first on “Who” and then on “What.” Jim Collins calls this the “Hedgehog Concept,” doing one thing and doing it well.

I’m sure you’ve heard this before. Companies will talk about their “core competency” and how they need to focus their attention on that single thing they do well however, the problem with most modern organizations is that they are being run by foxes when they should be run by hedgehogs. They try to do too many things and as a result are not really outstanding in any one thing.

Princeton professor Marvin Bressler points out the power of being a hedgehog: “You want to know what separates those who make the biggest impact from all the others who are just as smart? They’re hedgehogs. Freud and the unconscious, Darwin and natural selection, Marx and class struggle, Einstein and relativity, Adam Smith and the division of labor—they were all hedgehogs. Hedgehogs understand that the essence of profound insight is simplicity. What could be more simple than e = mc2, [or F=ma]? What could be simpler than the idea of the unconscious, organized into an id, ego, and superego? What could be more elegant than Adam Smith’s pin factory and “invisible hand?” Hedgehogs have a piercing insight that allows them to see through complexity and discern underlying patterns. Hedgehogs see what is essential, and ignore the rest.”

Admiral Jim Stockdale was a United States military officer held captive for eight years during the Vietnam War. Stockdale was repeatedly tortured and as such one would think he never had much reason to believe he would survive and someday get to see his family again. However, Stockdale never lost faith during his ordeal: “I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”

Stockdale had remarkable faith in the notion that he’d get out alive however, he admitted that he wasn’t the most optimistic of his prison-mates−many of who failed to make it out alive. As he tells it, “They were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart.”

This then is what’s called the “Stockdale Paradox.” Stockdale was a hedgehog and his prison-mates were foxes. What the foxes failed to do was confront the reality of their situation. They preferred the optimists’ approach, ignoring the harsh reality of the situation and hoping the difficulties would go away. While the self-delusion made it easier on them in the short-term, when they were eventually forced to face reality, it became too much and they couldn’t handle it.

This bring me to a subject I’ve written about before; the clash between the optimist, the pessimist and the realist. From Stockdale’s story it appears obvious the best approach is to be a realist. Realists see things relatively clearly, but most of us aren’t realists. Most of us, to varying degrees, view the events in our lives either optimistically or pessimistically.

Both optimists and pessimist are foxes−they tend to overthink everything. Realists are hedgehogs. The key to success is to moderate the optimistic and pessimistic views one has with the reality of a given situation−we need to be both a fox and a hedgehog.

William Arthur Ward, one of America’s most quoted writers of inspirational maxims and author of Fountains of Faith, puts it in perspective: “The pessimist complains about the wind; the optimist expects it to change; the realist adjusts the sails.”

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