Leadership – Hedgehogs

Hedgehogs.  Don’t you love hedgehogs?  One of the new trends in pet ownership is owning a hedgehog, those cute, rolly-polly little porcupine wannabes.

What is a hedgehog doing in the leadership and personal development world?  You can thank Jim Collins for the gift of introducing the hedgehog into the world of personal and leadership development.  Collins popularized an ancient Greeks parable, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows but one thing.” In the parable, the fox uses a variety of strategies to try to catch the hedgehog. It sneaks, pounces, races, and plays dead. And yet, every time, it walks away defeated, with a nose full of spines. The fox never learns that the hedgehog knows how to do one thing extremely: defend itself. Foxes would probably like to enjoy a hedgehog for lunch on a regular basis, but try as they might, they do not have much success in eating them.

In an essay entitled “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” Isaiah Berlin tells about two types of thinkers, “hedgehogs” and “foxes.”  Fox thinkers rely on complexity, strategy, and cunning. They are smart, but often make things so complex that other people can’t understand them. Hedgehog thinkers tend to simplify things.  They get one big idea and focus on simplifying matters down to fundamental, simple ideas. Some walks of life favor foxes; some walks of life favor hedgehogs. Effective leadership favors the hedgehog.

The power of the hedgehog concept is in utilizing simplicity to produce success.  This works on both the individual level of the leader’s own life, and in the enterprise in which the leader leads. This post is focused on the personal level, the life of the leader.

Effective leadership is built around two priorities, people and influence.  Great leaders are consistently and genuinely interested in the people they lead.  In fact, the best leaders think of the people on their team as more important than themselves, and their leadership efforts are focused on the team members, their well-being, and their individual success.  The success of the enterprise, and indeed that of the leader, really depends upon the success of each team member.  The really good leaders get that idea and live by it.

Effective leadership is based upon influence.  A positional leader may “lead” by designing, directing and delegating, but a respected leader influences the team members toward their own success as the means to achieve success for the enterprise.  When a great leader is in giving the best leadership, individuals in the enterprise will feel supported, encouraged, empowered, engaged, and will gain these through the influential work of the leader.

So, what about the hedgehogs?

Remember, the hedgehog thinker is best suited to be a leader, according to Berlin.  Hedgehog thinkers are adept at identifying the big ideas and focusing energies on simplifying matters down to fundamental, simple ideas.  These leaders then communicate the big ideas effectively, inspiring their teams to own and pursue these ideas. Using the power of influence instead of dominance or command position, effective leaders empower teams to identify the big idea in their own work roles and focus on simplifying matters down to fundamental, simple ideas that can be successfully and efficiently pursued.  This process of finding the hedgehog and inspiring the enterprise to own it is what produces a clear vision in the team.  When the team “gets” the vision, passion is often not far behind.

The Point: the really good, truly effective leaders focus on one big idea, the “hedgehog,” and help members of the enterprise do the same.  They do so by influence and by genuine engagement with the people in the enterprise.  This forms the basis for vision and passion within the team and across the enterprise. But there is more to this hedgehog concept that must be understood.  Look for the next post on identifying hedgehogs.

Vision: “…the force which molds meaning for the people of an organization.” – Manasse


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