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Are you a hedgehog or a fox?

The delineation was first presented in a 1953 book by philosopher Isaiah Berlin and focused on writers and thinkers. Hedgehogs view the world through the lens of a single defining idea. Foxes, on the other hand, poke around and draw from a wide variety of ideas, unrelated or even contradictory, refusing to limit themselves (or their followers) to a single operating idea.

This touches on how you think – instinctively react to the world around you – and also how you bring ideas together into strategies. It also can apply to your work and management styles – and that of your bosses. There are many successful foxes and hedgehogs. Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan was a hedgehog and Bill Clinton a fox, yet historians rate both highly. But it can be hard to work for a leader whose fox or hedgehog style grates on you and, flipping that around, you can drive people who work for you nuts if you have what for them is an infuriating approach. The context in which you are working may also require one particular style, temporarily or permanently.

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In his book Time to Lead, University of Carolina Professor Jan-Benedict Steenkamp extends the analysis to consider leaders who combine the qualities of hedgehogs and foxes, calling them eagles. They soar by aligning long-term vision with available means, see how the forest is built from the trees, and know how to stretch goals over time or purposefully increase resources to achieve the desired ends. Abraham Lincoln was an eagle, focused on preserving the Union but willing to try whatever manoeuvre achieved that end. Barack Obama’s recent book revealed frustration over his foxlike path in his early years but as president, bombarded with many options, he had to find eagle vision for his team and himself. Leaders without either hedgehog or fox instincts tend to be hapless and Prof. Steenkamp labels them ostriches.

If this framework illuminates your style, here is what to guard against. Foxes can fail to provide direction and thus induce strategic paralysis. “If you try to anticipate everything, you’ll risk accomplishing nothing,” he warns in his book Time to Lead. Hedgehogs can be so wrapped up in their vision they fail to establish a proper relationship between ends and means. Eagles may sound like the perfect blend – and of 16 historical leaders he profiled, most were eagles – but they are faced with a constant balancing act between ends and means that may not work out. As well, over time, there is the danger that a soaring eagle morphs into a hedgehog as they become so convinced of being right they lose a fox’s tactical flexibility.

This is vital for our careers. Consultant Scott Eblin recalls opening a session at GE’s famed Crotonville leadership development campus by telling high potentials, “if you’re like your peers here, you’re so busy doing stuff, you probably don’t see what needs to be done.” It’s important to transcend that foxlike behaviour, but not easy, as you try to satisfy your boss’s demands. The new Make Time app, helpfully, asks you to list the day’s single highlight, offers insights on maintaining laserlike focus, and asks you to reflect with a few simple notes at day’s end.

Canadian consultant Michael Canic, early in his career, was responsible for district-level service quality at FedEx. He decided to determine the best approach, studying successful and unsuccessful companies, and decided the key was ruthless consistency. “Companies that successfully implemented continuous quality improvement made sure everything was aligned with success. Every decision. Every action. All the arrows were pointed in the right direction. Consistently,” he writes in Ruthless Consistency.

He urges you to give up strategic planning since it emphasizes the wrong thing: planning. Instead, institute a system that ensures strategy is a continuing, managed process. He calls that strategic management, in effect an eagle approach integrating the vision and the means.

It starts by prioritizing your priorities. The typical tendency is to have too many strategic corporate initiatives. Pare them back by conducting targeted research into the most promising, looking at resource requirements, length of time to complete, payback timeline, organizational trauma involved, probability of success, return on investment, consequence of failure and overall impact if successful.

After clearing out the non-essential activities, he suggests a process of minesweeping, in which you list all the reasons each initiative could fail. Don’t shy away from discussing how you failed in the past through self-defeating management practices, weak processes, cultural misalignment, or whatever. Then figure out what preventative actions to take now and what corrective actions will be required if you still go off the rails with the initiative.

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Mr. Canic isn’t consciously discussing foxes, hedgehogs and eagles. But I made the link because it’s there, in his plea for ruthless corporate consistency, and his call to connect the dots between purpose, goals and expectations. We need to think through the fox-hedgehog-eagle framework for all aspects of our working life, including leadership styles, to-do lists, and how our organization implements strategy.

Cannonballs

  • Looking at 360-degree evaluations of leaders during the pandemic turmoil of March to June, leadership development consultants Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman found women in general rated significantly higher than men – usually women fare better in the scores but in this period the gap increased, possibly indicating women perform better in a crisis. That may result from their greater ability to build engagement and stronger interpersonal skills.
  • Shopify founder Tobi Lutke says a good meeting for him is when he learns something. Central to his approach is trying to prove his own ideas – and those that appeal to him from subordinates – wrong, poking holes to test if they will work.
  • When in doubt about others around you, assume good intention suggests life coach Mindy Jo Rigel.
Editor’s note: (Jan. 11, 2021): An earlier version of this article incorrectly said Tobi Lutke is the founder or Spotify, when it is Shopify.

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