The Hedgehog and the Fox

Like a lot of people these days, I am following closely the process of Democrats choosing a candidate to run against Donald Trump, and at the same time I happen to be reading a remarkable book on strategy and leadership by Yale professor John Lewis Gaddis called On Grand Strategy. Gaddis uses a central metaphorical dichotomy for his analysis: the hedgehog vs. the fox.

The ancient Greek poet Archilochus of Paros once wrote: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

Oxford professor Isaiah Berlin came across that passage and used it in a book he published in 1953. Hedgehogs, Berlin wrote, “relate everything 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.”

Gaddis quotes Berlin as saying that this distinction offers “a point of view from which to look and compare, a starting point for genuine investigation.” It might even reflect “one of the deepest differences which divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general.”

In this Democratic primary season, I can’t help but think about hedgehogs like Bernie Sanders, who seems uncompromisingly committed to a single central vision (democratic socialism), and foxes like Joe Biden, who doesn’t seem to have a set, specific guiding vision other than that of “electability.”

In trying to connect the fox and the hedgehog, Gaddis employs a scene from the 2012 movie Lincoln— a scene that has always been one of my favorite leadership lessons. Lincoln is seeking to codify the claim that all men are created equal. “What more praiseworthy cause could a hedgehog possibly pursue?” But to abolish slavery, Lincoln has to “move the Thirteenth Amendment through a fractious House of Representatives, and here his maneuvers are as foxy as they come. He resorts to deals, bribes, flattery, arm-twisting, and outright lies—so much so that the movie reeks, visually if not literally, of smoke-filled rooms.”

When anti-slavery hedgehog Thaddeus Stevens questions how Lincoln can reconcile such lofty goals with such lowly methods, Lincoln tells what his years as a young surveyor taught him:
A compass… will point you true north from where you’re standing, but it’s got no advice about the swamps and the deserts and chasms that you’ll encounter along the way. If in pursuit of your destination, you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp… then what’s the use of knowing true north?

Lincoln’s genius was to “keep long-term aspirations and immediate necessities in mind at the same time.”

Gaddis later offers the Greek leader Pericles as an example of one who lost his ability to be a fox, became an ineffective hedgehog, and steered his ship of state into danger. Once persuasion failed, confrontation might have seemed to be the only way for Pericles to keep to his course. Why? “Why not deviate, as Lincoln would later do, to avoid swamps, deserts, and chasms? Like Lincoln, Pericles looked ahead to the ages. He even left them monuments and sent them messages. But he didn’t leave behind a functional state…. That’s not farsightedness in a steersman. It’s running your vessel onto rocks.”

One can also imagine a fox who completely forgets where he is trying to go in all of his running this way and that. He survives—or wins— but to what end?

At this point, I don’t know who the Democratic nominee will be or even who it should be. But what I’m thinking I would look for is someone who knows when to be a hedgehog (consulting the compass) and when to be a fox (skirting the swamp)— someone who has a clear sense of where we should go and also the slyness to actually get us there.

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