Is it possible to make too much money? A brief story of hedgehogs, foxes and flies

Is it possible to make too much money? Is it possible to have too much ambition? Is it possible to be too successful? President & CEO, part-time philosopher and full-time capitalist, Lloyd Blankenfein, lectured the public in 2009 about the success of Goldman Sachs while acknowledging that “people are pissed off, mad, and bent out of shape.” Goldman Sachs was back in the news with the very public resignation of former employee, Greg Smith, who lambasted the company’s greedy and unethical practices. Read Smith’s full resignation letter.

The Greek Poet Archilochus wrote: “The fox knows many things; the hedgehog knows one big thing.” You may recall in his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins uses the metaphor of the fox and the hedgehog to explain how some companies become not good but great:

Those who built the good-to-great companies were, to one degree or another, hedgehogs. They used their hedgehog nature to drive toward what we came to call a Hedgehog Concept for their companies. Those who led the comparison companies tended to be foxes, never gaining the clarifying advantage of a Hedgehog Concept, being instead scattered, diffused, and inconsistent (page 92).

Collin’s hedgehog has a certain seductive appeal. We want our employees to “just do their jobs.” But real leaders need the mentality of the fox too. Consider the original story of the Fox and the Hedgehog in the ancient Greek fable by Aesop that Archilochus was also quoting:

A Fox swimming across a rapid river was carried by the force of the current into a very deep ravine, where he lay for a long time very much bruised, sick, and unable to move. A swarm of hungry blood sucking flies settled upon him. A Hedgehog, passing by, saw his anguish and inquired if he should drive away the flies that were tormenting him. “By no means,” replied the Fox; “pray do not molest them.” “How is this?” said the Hedgehog; “do you not want to be rid of them?” “No,” returned the Fox, “for these flies which you see are full of blood, and sting me but little, and if you rid me of these which are already satiated, others more hungry will come in their place, and will drink up all the blood I have left.”

The hedgehog gets things done, but has an overly simplistic view. The fox is the opposite, embracing the complexity of reality without being overwhelmed by it.

The Greek philosophers understood how to develop a leader of excellence. The proper tension of two good qualities—like the focus of the hedgehog and the broad view of the fox—were brought together to tune the soul of the leader. This makes the leader neither savage nor weak, but honest, just and courageous, and able to relate to others in a healthy way. Without this tension, the leader lacks the qualities necessary to recognize the authentically good, sense real dangers and unify others to aim toward human excellence. Today, the language of success is in opposition to moral excellence. In the iconic movie, Wall Street, Gordon Gecko boldly claims that “Greed is Good!” Twenty years later, the sequel to the movie would ask, “How much is enough?” And the reply—epitomizing the nature of greed—was simply, “More!”

Collins begins Good to Great with a stunning statement: “Good is the enemy of great.” At first, his provocative style appears to refer to “good enough” or mediocrity. But, no, he goes on to say that “quite good” is still not good enough. Collins explains why half his companies are no longer great in his sequel, How the Mighty Fall, by claiming that the decline of once great companies is due to “the undisciplined pursuit of more.” Firms overreach, moving into industries or growing to a scale where the factors behind their original success no longer apply [p.55].

For Collins, so long as our pursuit of “more” is disciplined, i.e.; tempered by fear of losses and other disciplining forces of the market, then it is good. Collins’s own hedgehog-like focus on greatness creates an unintended proxy for greed. He is not alone. Corporate finance scholars from Milton Friedman to Nouriel Roubini have defended the ethics of excess by claiming, “There’s nothing wrong with greed, per se… so long as it is tempered, first, by fear of losses?”²

Goodness is not just ignored in these statements, but treated with disdain, turned upside down and inside out. The meaning of words and the principles upon which real good occurs are twisted. Two bads – greed and fear – can’t make a good. And, good can never be the enemy of great.

Bankers like Blankenfein denounce limits on goods because they see them as in opposition to greatness, not realizing that with greed; a person, like the flies in Aesop’s Fable, is eventually satiated, so that their greed is “less ravenous”…

Numerous times employees have been told me the reason they distrust a particular sales representative or other team member is because “he is selfish, only in it for himself and not the good of the customers or the company!” One of my clients warned some of his overly ambitious – and greedy – employees who wanted to charge his customers more than the market price: ‘pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered.’

The problem of greed in business is not unique to our time. The Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, documented Roman Emperor Tiberius’s disgust 2,000 years ago with the conduct of the governors of his time as though he were describing some investment bankers and business leaders of today:

All governors are naturally disposed to get as much as they can; and that those who are not to fix it there, but to stay a short time, and that at an uncertainty when they shall be turned out, do more severely hurry themselves on to fleece the people; but that if their government be long continued to them, they are at last satiated with the spoils, as having gotten a vast deal, and so become at length less sharp in their pillaging; but that, if successors are sent quickly, the poor subjects, who are exposed to them as a prey, will not be able to bear the new ones, while they shall not have the same time allowed them wherein their predecessors had filled themselves, and so grow more unconcerned about getting more; and this because they are removed before they have had time [for their oppressions].

To emphasize his point, Caesar Tiberius modifies Aesop’s original story to explain how he, Tiberius, avoids his own destruction by being fox-like in his assignment³:

For this cause, therefore, it is that I am myself careful not to send such new governors perpetually to those my subjects, who are already sufficiently harassed by many oppressions, as may, like these flies, further distress them; and so beside their natural desire for gain, may have this additional incitement to it, that they expect to be suddenly deprived of that pleasure which they take in it.” . . .

Josephus notes that “although [Tiberius] was emperor twenty-two years, he sent in all but two procurators to govern the nation of the Jews—Gratus, and his successor, Pontius Pilate” who condemned Christ to death.

Fox like leaders deal carefully with the flies in their presence. The Board of Goldman Sachs is not likely to change out its CEO any time soon. After all, like Tiberius, they may believe that despite his rhetoric, Blankenfein, has sucked all the blood he can from their clients. A new CEO might continue the persecution.

Josephus appears unaware or fails to mention that the following story told by Caesar Tiberius reveals that he is actually quoting Aesop’s Fable: “A great number of flies came about the sore place of a man that had been wounded; upon which one of the stander—by pitied the man’s misfortune, and thinking he was not able to drive away those flies himself, was going to drive them away for him; but he prayed him to let them alone; the other, by way of reply, asked him the reason of such a preposterous proceeding, in preventing relief from his present misery; to which he answered, ‘If thou drivest these flies away, thou wilt hurt me worse; for as these are already full of my blood, they do not crowd about me, nor pain me so much as before, but are sometimes more remiss, while the fresh ones that come, almost famished, and find me quite tired down already, will be my destruction.’”

Updated: April 5th, 2019
Originally Uploaded: November 19th, 2014