Foxes and Hedgehogs

Ever since I came across the concept of personal leadership, one of the most interesting paradigms I have encountered in it is that which is called the Hedgehog concept. it’s a concept based on an essay by famous liberal philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, titled The Hedgehog and the Fox. Which in turn is based on a Greek parable : the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. What this meant literarily was that, the hedgehog, a group of spiny mammals whose natural defence is their obviously dangerous spikes,  knows only one tactic. The fox in its bid to attack the hedgehog, develops several means of doing so. The hedgehog has only one way of fighting back (using its spikes), but the fox has many ways of attacking. Hence the hedgehog wanders every time when he tries to attack again with yet another trick while the Fox will never learn that his many tricks aren’t working. This was the concept that helped Berlin divide the world into two different kinds of people: Foxes and Hedgehogs.

Breaking it down into practical terms (because I know you are tired of my abstract ramblings), some people – the foxes – are scattered, they pursue divergent ends, they are unsure about their realities, they want to achieve everything every time, hence they do not bother to form (or are prevented from forming) a unifying vision about ‘everything’. Hedgehogs are different. They pursue one end, they have a central vision of reality and an aligned philosophy. They are less divergent. It doesn’t matter how complex a project, a situation or the world is, the hedgehog  reduces it into a simple idea. It has been found that greatness has been achieved by certain individuals primarily because they have found out how to develop a hedgehog concept about every aspect of their lives.  People like Adam Smith and Darwin, Marx and Einstein; these men were hedgehogs.

What this really means is that they have been able to simplify, unify and converge all their activities, thoughts and realities into one. This of course doesn’t mean that they are totally narrow minded, what it simply means is that all what you find them doing is aimed at the same purpose. For example, an intelligent investor might need to understand some things about how his investment translates into commodities, real estate, oil and gas, manufacturing etc. hearing such a person speak about all these at a time might confuse the listener but looking closely, he still has one unifying purpose – he is an investor.

If we look very closely at our personal individual lives or that of those around us, we just might notice the chaos, the lack of coherence and proper judgment. Something tantamount to the old cliché of ‘jack of all trades and master of none.’ OK, but breaking it down, you might want to ask; what’s the difference?, What do I need to know?  How can I become a hedgehog? Well, the hedgehog concept can  be developed by taking a step further and putting three important fields of human endeavor into consideration.

These fields are questions that I believe that everyone who has the intention to be great has to seriously ask him/herself.

Field one / Question one:  What is my talent

what is that thing that you can be the best in the world at. This doesn’t have to be what you learnt in school or what you studied in the university. Having been schooled in the field of music for example, doesn’t necessarily mean that you are talented in that area, likewise does being a medical doctor mean that you can be the best physician in the world. But, you may ask; it seems like I’ve got many talents. Well, hold on there are two more fields to go.

“The hedgehog concept is not a goal to be the best, a strategy to be the best, an intention to be the best, a plan to be the best. It is an understanding of what you can be the best at. The distinction is absolutely crucial.”

– Jim Collins (Author of Good to great)

Field two/Question two: What am I passionate about:

This takes it a step further. You can be great at doing something, you can think you are talented at it, but if you are not deeply passionate about it, then it doesn’t fit into the development of your hedgehog concept.

Passion is heart felt and it can be manifest as optimism, hope, enthusiasm, empathy, motivation, fearlessness, people-oriented etc.  Passion gives you an unusual energy. An energy that doesn’t make you see hard work the same way others see it. Rather than see it as a sacrifice, you go to your bed wishing you never had to take a break. You cannot wait for Monday to come again. You can do what you are doing even if you will not get paid for it.

Field Three/Question three:  Does anyone need it?

When talent and passion insect with a unique human need, then the room is created for significant impact and effectiveness. In other words, you have found your voice and you just might engage yourself and pour yourself into that activity. When a need arises of course, it gives you the opportunity to turn it into a profitable venture. One in which economic value can also be created alongside others.

Where these three fields intersect is where we are most likely to find greatness. This is the hedgehog concept. Very rarely do people live by this. I have met a lot of people who are constantly doing the work they know they can never be the best at and are also not passionate about. This, I believe, is not the best way of living, but even more painful is the fact that they do not seem to care.

Consider the words of Steven R. Covey;

‘… when you engage in work that taps your talent and fuels your passion- that rises out of a great need in the world that you feel drawn by conscience to meet – therein lies your voice, your calling, your soul’s code.’

Only about 1% of the world will ever develop the hedgehog concept, and even fewer will live by it.




I think the question I will ask you is: Are you going to be part of the 1%?



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: