The hedgehog and the fox on middle management

December 11, 2017 by Kyle Johnson

About the author

Kyle Johnson

Revenue operations lead

Kyle provides revenue and sales analysis for all Advicent go-to-market teams. These analytics optimize Advicent pipeline forecasting, marketing strategies, and leveraged media channels to improve efficiency of sales operations. Kyle is interested in combining his three passions: tech, data analytics, and marketing, to drive success.

War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy, is often considered a literary masterpiece. The book follows three main characters, but introduces nearly 600 in total, during the Napoleonic invasion of Russia in 1812. This epic masterpiece is an analysis of the theory of history, juxtaposing the events of an individual to the collective of a country. One of the most interesting conclusions from the book, however, comes from Isaiah Berlin. In 1953, Berlin wrote an essay, The Hedgehog and the Fox, which categorizes writers and thinkers into two distinct subsections: hedgehogs and foxes.

Defining the archetypes

Referencing an old Greek poet, Berlin categorizes the foxes as knowing many things and the hedgehog as knowing one important thing. This framework of foxes and hedgehogs can be applied to people in the corporate environment. Some people have an understanding that is shallow but wide in breadth, while others take a deep and narrow approach.

As individuals continue to grow in their career and gain more responsibilities, the growth into management requires individuals to transition from a hedgehog to a fox. Analyzing the characteristics of hedgehogs and foxes we will see each of their strengths. Then we will look at why corporate structures are so poor at preparing individuals for management.

The hedgehog

The hedgehog is the deep and narrow thinker, knowing one big thing. Hedgehogs are detailed thinkers that are able to take the time to understand complex relationships inside their niche. They know how their one big thing works very well. While the onset of this blog may sound like foxes are preferable to hedgehogs, the hedgehog is just as much a corporate necessity as the fox.

When applied correctly, the hedgehog is able to provide massive value to the organization with a deep understanding of how a computer system, product, or industry work. While all individuals are not hedgehog type thinkers, almost all entry level jobs are more hedgehog leaning than fox leaning. The hedgehog focuses on micro-level thinking, completing tasks.

The fox

The fox is shallow but wide in their approach to problem-solving; they know many things. The fox is the high-level strategic thinker, setting corporate strategies and organizing teams of the correct people to accomplish jobs. They put the pieces of a larger puzzle together, comprehending which strategic initiatives must be accomplished to bring the most success.

While they may not seem to do much, they make the large decisions about the direction of the organization at large. They can spend weeks or months making one big decision. Most managerial positions are fox-leaning because the manager must set some strategic course for the department they manage. The fox focuses on the macro-level thinking, crafting strategies.

Applying this framework

Current corporate structures do not facilitate the transition for hedgehogs into foxes. The entry level job prepares people for micro-level thinking, forcing the employee to comprehend the best way to accomplish task after task, strengthening the hedgehog part of the brain. Once the employee moves into a middle management role, they must learn to think like a fox by taking their time to map out complex decisions that affect their department or entire organization.

These two different styles of thinking must be utilized by the middle manager to be good at setting their department strategy while continuing to complete their day-to-day tasks.

I encourage you to apply this framework yourself. Are you a hedgehog or a fox? How does that effect the decisions you make? As I stated, neither is better than the other, they both are corporate necessities. I encourage managers to guide their employees on the transition to a middle management position.

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