Are you a fox or a hedgehog? Here's what an ancient saying reveals about your leadership style

Andia/Getty Images; GlobalP/Getty ImagesAccording to philosopher Isaiah Berlin, leaders can be split into hedgehogs or foxes.
  • The ancient Greek poet Archilochus of Paros wrote, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”
  • According to a 1953 essay by philosopher Isaiah Berlin, thinkers and leaders can be split in these two animal categories: Those who see the details in everything they do, like the fox, and those who are great at having one singular vision, like the hedgehog.
  • In his book “On Grand Strategy,” Yale professor John Lewis Gaddis says the adage can teach us a lot about becoming a great leader based on how we perceive big-picture goals.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

What can a 2,600-year-old line about a fox and a hedgehog teach us about leadership?

The ancient Greek poet Archilochus wrote a now-lost parable with the following moral: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”

The general gist of the line is this: Some people see the details in everything they do, like the fox, while others are great at having one singular vision, like the hedgehog. This animal-centric adage is at the heart of a lesson in “On Grand Strategy,” an instruction manual for would-be leaders based on popular seminars by Yale professor John Lewis Gaddis.

Taking a cue from a 1953 essay by British-American philosopher Isaiah Berlin, Gaddis discusses how great leaders and thinkers can be categorized as either hedgehogs or foxes. Berlin went so far as to say that this split is “one of the deepest differences [that] divide writers and thinkers, and, it may be, human beings in general.”

The divide may stem from how each animal reacts to its environment. Notable thinkers have pointed out that when a fox is hunted, it finds many clever ways to evade predators; when a hedgehog is hunted, it curls up into a spiky ball and lies still.

In Berlin’s words, hedgehogs “relate everything to a single central vision… a single, universal, organising principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance.” Foxes, on the other hand, “pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory… related to no moral or aesthetic principle.” According to Gaddis and Berlin, Dante was a hedgehog, but Shakespeare and Joyce were foxes.

Gaddis also points out that Abraham Lincoln’s leadership embodied the best of both animals. He notes that Lincoln focused on preserving the principles of the Declaration of Independence, but did it through foxy means: “What more praiseworthy cause could a hedgehog possibly pursue? But to abolish slavery, Lincoln must move the Thirteenth Amendment through a fractious House of Representatives, and here his maneuvers are as foxy as they come.”

According to Gaddis, Lincoln’s single goal was to preserve the Union, but he had to rely on bribery, flattery, and “outright lies” to do so. He knew that the future of America depended on both the big picture and the small details.

In his book “The Outsiders: Eight Unconventional CEOs and Their Radically Rational Blueprints for Success,” William Thorndike used the ancient parable to describe the rise of Warren Buffett. “Buffett, already an extraordinarily successful investor, came to Berkshire uniquely prepared for allocating capital,” Thorndike writes. “Most CEOs are limited by prior experience to investment opportunities within their own industry – they are hedgehogs. Buffett, in contrast, by virtue of his prior experience evaluating investments in a wide variety of securities and industries, was a classic fox and had the advantage of choosing from a much wider menu of allocation options, including the purchase of private companies and publicly traded stocks.”

Meanwhile, Carl Reichardt, former CEO of Wells Fargo, has been called “a consummate hedgehog.”According to writer Jim Collins, “While his counterparts at Bank of America went into a reaction-revolution panic mode in response to deregulation, hiring change gurus who used sophisticated models and time-consuming encounter groups, Reichardt stripped everything down to its essential simplicity.”

Collins quotes the executive as saying: “It’s not space science stuff. What we did was so simple, and we kept it simple. It was so straightforward and obvious that it sounds almost ridiculous to talk about it. The average business man coming from a highly competitive industry with no regulations would have jumped on this like a goose on a June bug.”

The phrase has been in vogue since the ’50s, even inspiring a red fox mascot for statistical-analysis site FiveThirtyEight. According to Gaddis, Berlin not only succeeded in finding a fun way to compare personalities, but he made himself “intellectually indelible” by turning his “ideas into animals.”

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