According to philosopher Isaiah Berlin, in one of his most popular essays which was later published as a book in 1953, leaders can be split into hedgehogs or foxes. According to Wikipedia, the title is a reference to a fragment attributed to the Ancient Greek poet Archilochus: “a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one big thing“.
Berlin’s general idea was to split both writers and thinkers into two categories:
- Hedgehogs; who view the world through the lens of a single defining idea (examples given include Plato, Lucretius, Dante Alighieri, Blaise Pascal, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Friedrich Nietzsche, Henrik Ibsen, Marcel Proust and Fernand Braudel), and
- Foxes; who draw on a wide variety of experiences and for whom the world cannot be boiled down to a single idea (examples given include Herodotus, Aristotle, Desiderius Erasmus, William Shakespeare, Michel de Montaigne, Molière, Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Aleksandr Pushkin, Honoré de Balzac, James Joyce and Philip Warren Anderson).
This division might seem odd at first; but consider how each animal reacts to its environment. As Agdages explains, when a fox is hunted, the wiley critter comes up with clever ways to evade predators. Conversely, he describes, when a hedgehog is hunted it curls up into a spiky ball and lies still.
William Thorndike, in his book “The Outsiders: Eight Unconventional CEOs and Their Radically Rational Blueprints for Success,” used the same parable to describe the rise of Warren Buffett. “Buffett, already an extraordinarily successful investor, came to Berkshire uniquely prepared for allocating capital,” says Thorndike. “Most CEOs are limited by prior experience to investment opportunities within their own industry – they are hedgehogs. Buffett, in contrast, by virtue of his prior experience evaluating investments in a wide variety of securities and industries, was a classic fox and had the advantage of choosing from a much wider menu of allocation options, including the purchase of private companies and publicly traded stocks.”
Carl Reichardt on the other hand, the former CEO of Wells Fargo, has been called “a consummate hedgehog. , according to writer Jim Collins. “While his counterparts at Bank of America went into a reaction-revolution panic mode in response to deregulation, hiring change gurus who used sophisticated models and time-consuming encounter groups, Reichardt stripped everything down to its essential simplicity”.
John Lewis Gaddis, author of the Pulitzer prize winning NYT bestselling book “On Grand Strategy” uses this concept to advise future leaders too. Gaddis points out that Abraham Lincoln’s leadership embodied the best of both animals. He notes that Lincoln focused on preserving the principles of the Declaration of Independence, but did it in a foxy way: “What more praiseworthy cause could a hedgehog possibly pursue? But to abolish slavery, Lincoln must move the Thirteenth Amendment through a fractious House of Representatives, and here his maneuvers are as foxy as they come.” According to Gaddis, Lincoln’s single goal was to preserve the Union, but he had to rely on bribery, flattery, and “outright lies” to do so. He knew that the future of America depended on both the big picture and the small details.
To summarise the concept; some people see the details in everything they do, like the fox, while others are great at having a singular vision, like the hedgehog. Going back to a critical distiction in the definition of the concept, Jim Collins says it perfectly: The Hedgehog Concept is not a goal to be the best, a strategy to be to be the best, an intention to be the best, a plan to be the best. It is an understanding of what you can be the best at. The distinction is absolutely crucial.
Every company would like to be the best at something, Collins continues, but not many actually understand—with piercing insight and egoless clarity—what they actually have the potential to be the best at and, just as important, what they cannot be the best at. It is this distinction that stands as one of the primary contrasts between the good-to-great companies and the comparison companies.
Thoughts about the watch industry
Having seen all of this material I grappled with the idea of applying this to the watch industry. I would describe F.P. Journe or Maximilian Busser as hedgehogs. I would describe larger brands like Vacheron Constantin or Patek Philippe as foxes. Then I realised… perhaps it wasn’t right to think of larger ‘brands’ as either a fox or hedgehog – there could be either ‘type’ of person leading the organisation.
That said, there is a certain wisdom in taking the time to understand what you’re good at – whether you’re leading a large brand, or you’re the head of your own independent atelier. Consider Dufour as an example -he’s widely regarded as one of the finest finishers of movements – there’s a whole article about him on A Collected Man so I won’t get into it here, but he isn’t driven by repeated innovation and growth. On the other hand, people like Journe and Chaykin are excellent innovators – they’ve released genuinely innovative watches such as the Resonance, or the Mars Conqueror respectively. Then you get the design innovators like Max Busser who, in some way innovate beyond mechanics, and into design too, with one example being the HM9.
I didn’t intend to end this with some sort of call to action or groundbreaking conclusion; I rarely do! The point was simply to highlight that as consumers, perhaps this is a lens to consider when evaluating our own purchasing decisions. When we buy a watch, what are we buying, and from whom? Are they the best at what they do? Is that what we want, or care about? This article feels less like one which could have any firm conclusion, but rather, one which would lend itself to a broader discussion, so please jump in the comments section and weigh in. Is this simply a concept not suited to watchmaking at all? I can see that argument too.
Look forward to your thoughts.