Are You a Hedgehog or a Fox?

by Ron Potter

Years ago I was working with a client in Scotland.  It was mid-June so the days were very long.  Because Scotland is so far north the sun rises at about 4:30 in the morning.  This allowed me to play nine holes of golf before my meetings started.  While I was on one hole a small hedgehog came walking out from a nearby woodpile.  He seemed oblivious to my presence and walked right into the line of my pending putt.  I reached out with my putter and “patted” him on the rear end assuming he would scamper off the green.  Instead, he curled tightly up into a ball and held his defensive position.  I watched him for a few minutes but he never came out of his defensive ball.  I then took my putter, treated him like a golf ball, and putted him off the green.  After a few minutes, he got up a scampered off.

So when I saw the Wall Street Journal titled, “The Hedgehogs of Critical Race Theory”, I was intrigued.


Archilocus was a Greek poet and philosopher who said, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”. The WSJ article says that the political philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote an essay in 1953 suggesting that the world was divided between hedgehogs and foxes.  He identified Karl Marx as a supreme hedgehog and Franklin Roosevelt as a restlessly improvising fox.

The WSJ article expresses that the world’s hedgehog population tends to expand in times of stress and change.  Lately, it has exploded in the U.S. with all of them advancing One Big Thing or another, each peering through the lens of a particular obsession. (Italics are mine)

The theologian Richard Niebuhr, explained it this way: “There is no greater barrier to understanding than the assumption that the standpoint which we happen to occupy is a universal one.”

Barrier to Understanding

Do you want to understand or would you rather stick with your hedgehog approach to one big standpoint?  This is the difference between normal teams and great teams.

In great teams, everyone suspends their opinions and standpoints for a moment while they attempt to completely understand each members’ viewpoints.  This requires that we listen to understand rather than listening to respond.

It’s a natural human trait to keep score in our head of the issues that we agree with and disagrees with while another person is explaining their viewpoint.  STOP IT!  It does take a great deal of energy and discipline to fully listen with the intent to understand where the other person is coming from and what is forming their opinion.  It takes hard work.

Work at it!  It will make you a better person and a better team.

Koosh Ball

A colleague called me the other day and asked if I had ever dealt with someone that was so convinced that their opinion and perspective was right that they never stopped talking or interrupting.  And if so, how did I deal with it? My answer was a Koosh ball.


It was an exercise I often used when we had a “talker” on the team.  The rules were simple:

  • Only the person who was in the possession of the Koosh ball could speak.
  • When that person was done expressing their opinion and perspective they would then decide who the Koosh ball was tossed to next.

Two things I often observed was the the “talker” still needed a signal to stop talking even though they knew the rules.  I often had to put my hand up to cut them off and remind them that their job was to fully understand the perspective of the talking person.  They still seemed to have a difficult time.  It took hard work on everyone’s part.

The other thing I often observed was that the team was so tired of constantly hearing the talker, they would toss to anyone other than the talker.  It became obvious that we were hearing the other’s perspective for the first time.  Very refreshing and very empowering to everyone.

Opinion and Perspective

It’s OK to have clear and powerful opinions and perspectives.  However, don’t assume that each person sees that same universe.  Every person is unique and comes from individual experiences and understandings.  Just look at your own family.  I have three siblings.  We grew up in the same household with the same parents and were only a few years apart.  And yet, each of us had very unique experiences and developed a unique set of values.

That is why great teams outperform average teams and individuals.  Pulling all of those experiences and unique views of the world together into a team decision is very powerful.  If you haven’t experienced that, I hope you do someday.

It’s incredibly satisfying.

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