The Moral Fox

By Peter DeMarco | January 30, 2023

The Greek Poet Archilochus wrote: “The fox knows many things; the hedgehog knows one big thing.” 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.

Collins’s hedgehog has a certain seductive appeal, but leaders need the mentality of the fox, too. Consider the original fox and hedgehog in the ancient Greek fable by Aesop:

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 sees the problem and wants to fix it. But the fox grasps that more is at work in his predicament. Unlike Collins, the ancient Greeks had a more balanced view of both creatures. The hedgehog gets things done, but is a reductionist with an overly simplistic view. The fox is the opposite, embracing the complexity of the situation without being overwhelmed by it. The fox knows that he can’t just brush off the flies (like those demanding stakeholders a leader must attend to) causing him pain; he must avoid expediency and choose wisely. Collins puts the qualities of the hedgehog in opposition to those of the fox when in reality, a leader needs both.