The Hedgehog and the Fox

Last year I read a remarkable book on strategy and leadership by Yale professor John Lewis Gaddis called On Grand Strategy. It’s one of the most important books related to leadership I have ever read. 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.”

I am currently reading Robert Caro’s classic on Robert Moses, The Power Broker, and he offers a vivid description of a fox, New York Governor Alfred E. Smith, and his frustration with idealist hedgehogs:

[Smith] had no patience for reformers who… didn’t understand the importance of practical politics in getting things done, who refused to compromise, who insisted on having the bill as it was written, who raged loudly at injustice, who fought single-mindedly for an unattainable ideal. Their pigheadedness had the effect of dragging to political destruction politicians who listened to them, of ruining careers men had taken years to build. He had seen it happen. And, more important, what was the inevitable result of their efforts? Since they refused to compromise and operate within the political framework—the only framework within which their proposals could become reality—the laws they proposed were never enacted, and therefore at the end of their efforts the people they had wanted to help, the people who he knew so well needed help, hadn’t been helped at all. If anything, they had been hurt; the stirring up of hard feelings and bitterness delayed less dramatic but still useful reforms that might have been enacted. When the reformers were finished with all their hollering and were back in their comfortable homes, the widows of the Fourth Ward would still be forced to give up their children before they could get charity. What good was courage if its only effect was to hurt those you were trying to help?

So Smith despised the noncompromisers, the starry-eyed idealists.

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.”

On the other hand, 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? In The Power Broker, Caro offers a picture of Robert Moses, a hedgehog who had been learning at the feet of Al Smith to be a fox, and who, in the process, seemed to have lost sight of true north:

[Childs] and several other reformers familiar with a particular aspect of state government noticed that whenever Smith discussed it, he was making misstatements. The misstatements where very important ones; they didn’t affect the main thrust of Smith’s stand on the issue, with which the reformers agreed, but they felt Smith would like to have the facts straight. Knowing that Moses was working on Smith’s campaign staff, they pointed them out to him. “We were,” recalls one, “absolutely shocked at Bob’s reaction. He threw back his head and laughed at us and said, ‘Why, we know that. But it sounds a hell of a lot better this way, doesn’t it?’ Bob had always been so truthful. Now Bob was telling us that Smith was telling a deliberate lie—and Bob was condoning it.”

Bob Moses had changed from an uncompromising idealist to a man willing to deal with practical considerations; now the alteration had become more drastic…. [H]e had been learning the politicians’ way; now he almost seemed to have joined their ranks.

More, he was openly scornful of men who hadn’t, of men who still worried about the Truth when what counted was votes. He was openly scornful of reformers whose first concern was accuracy, who were willing to devote their lives to fighting for principle and who wanted to make that fight without compromise or surrender of any part of the ideals with which they had started it.

What we need in leadership, of course, is both the fox and the hedgehog.

In trying to connect the two, 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.”

I’m looking for leaders—and aspiring to be one, myself— who know when to be a hedgehog (consulting the compass) and when to be a fox (skirting the swamp)— people who have a clear sense of where we should go and also the slyness to actually get us there.

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