Do you think like a hedgehog or a fox?

By Timo Meynhardt, Carolin Hermann and Stefan Anderer

There are basically two types of person: one that believes that there are two types of person, and another that doesn’t. Despite having reservations about over-simplistic categorization, there are some theories which carry both practical wisdom and managerial relevance. One of the inspiring ones is the distinction between hedgehogs and foxes made by British philosopher Isaiah Berlin. He distinguishes between people who strive for a coherent world view with logic and an organising principle (hedgehogs), and others who are comfortable with loose ends and with not relating things systematically to a bigger picture (foxes).

In essence, this animal metaphor describes fundamental differences in human beings, concerning their preferences regarding organising and processing information and experience. Above all, it teaches us not to blame others for not seeing the world “correctly”. The metaphor, instead, urges us to respect different styles of relating to the world around us.

Referring to the famous line by ancient Greek poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”, Berlin identified a number of writers and thinkers as hedgehogs and foxes. He sees, for example, Dante, Nietzsche and Hegel as hedgehogs, while he considers Shakespeare, Goethe and Molière to be foxes.

In a famous study on the judgment of political experts in predicting future events, published in 2005, US professor of psychology Philip Tetlock found that while foxes outperform hedgehogs, the latter receive more public acclaim. In today’s world, the animal metaphor unfolds still with great power. In 2014, The Economist wrote: “The problem is that, like the fox, the West knows lots of different things but is not sure what it really wants, while Mr Putin is like the hedgehog that knows just one big thing, namely that Ukraine, especially in the south and east, is really part of Russia’s world.”

Analyzing real world problems from the hedgehog-fox-perspective is also attractive to others: we can easily detect that Scottish moral philosopher and pioneer of political economy Adam Smith, in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), was aware of what we have come to define as hedgehog traits: “The man of system, … is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it.”

Jim Collins, in his management bestseller Good to Great (2001), argues for a hedgehog concept as a key success factor for companies. Famous management writer John Kay has also deployed the idea, describing how effective decision makers recognise the limits of their knowledge. Hedgehogs, too often, seem to know an answer before hearing the question. Statistical data guru Nate Silver has argued that hedgehogs are too often caught up in their models. In our research, we found that, in top management positions, there are many more hedgehogs than foxes. In turbulent times, this might not be the optimal choice, since foxes are more able to sense ambiguity and paradox (Gomez and Meynhardt, 2012).

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Professor Dr Timo Meynhardt is managing director of the Center for Leadership and Values in Society at the University of St Gallen. He holds the chair of management at the Leuphana University in Lüneburg. Carolin Hermann is a doctoral student at the University of St Gallen. Since 2014 she has been working as research assistant for the Center for Leadership and Values in Society. Stefan Anderer is a doctoral student at Leuphana University, Lüneburg. Since 2014, he has been working as a research assistant for the chair of management.