In Dan Gardner’s fascinating new book, Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Fail – and Why We Believe Them Anyway, he cites the research of Professor Philip Tetlock, in dividing the expert forecasters he studied into hedgehogs and foxes. This comes from an essay entitled, “The Hedgehog and the Fox” by political philosopher Isaiah Berlin. The title comes from a poem fragment attributed to the ancient Greek poet Archilochus (“the fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”.)

Foxes Beat HedgehogsGardner writes; Foxes beat hedgehogs. Tetlock’s data couldn’t be more clear….hedgehogs who are ideologically extreme are even worse forecasters than others of their kind…. when hedgehogs made predictions involving their particular specialty, their accuracy declined (his emphasis.) And it got worse still when the prediction was for the long term.” And hedgehogs are media darlings because they’re “confident, clear, and dramatic. The sort who delivers quality sound bites and compelling stories. The sort who doesn’t bother with complications, caveats, and uncertainties. The sort who has One Big Idea.”

The hedgehog and fox metaphor has parallels to The Management-Leadership Balance. Strict management thinking is rigid and sees the world as black and white, either/or, and right or wrong. Leadership approaches take a nuanced approach recognizing many shades of gray, balancing and/also understanding that life sometimes gives us choices that are both right and wrong at the same time.

Management hedgehogs are what Kenneth Arrow, American Nobel laureate economist, was describing when he recounted the response he and his colleagues received after showing that the military’s long-term weather forecasts were useless; “The Commanding General is well aware the forecasts are no good. However, he needs them for planning purposes.”

Management hedgehogs set strategic plans and budgets based on their forecast of the year(s) ahead, put their blinders on, and push relentlessly forward. Leadership foxes are strategic learners. They establish a longer term vision and strategic direction, set their budgets and plans, and promptly start adjusting course.

Just as Gardner shows with expert hedgehogs throughout Future Babble, management hedgehogs do very little reviewing, assessing, and readjusting assumptions or direction. Their minds are made focused on their strategy (One Big Idea) and the course is set. They don’t let new data, feedback, and changing conditions get in the way. In fact, they’ll often make it difficult for anyone to raise concerns and identify problems. Their reviews center on operational details using lagging indicators like financial reports from which they extract little strategic learning.

Leadership foxes are constantly reviewing, assessing, and refocusing. They build flexible teams and learning organizations built to last by being built to change. They’ll quickly make internal changes and readjustments as external conditions change. Learning leaders seek input, feedback, and engagement of everyone up, down, and across their organizations. This is what McGill management professor, Henry Mintzberg, has shown throughout his work on the Strategy Safari. He calls strategic planning an oxymoron.

It’s been said there are two kinds of people in this world; those who classify everyone into groups and those who don’t! Management hedgehog or leadership fox. Which one are you? How do you know?

For Further Reading: