The Hedgehog, The Fox and Finding your Purpose


Discussions of leadership theory often outline the importance of identifying your purpose. Indeed, Heifetz et al. explains,
 “it makes little sense to practice leadership and put your own professional success and material gain at risk unless it is on behalf of some larger purpose that you find compelling.”
As I plan my career pathway and try to identify my purpose, Heifetz’s discussion raises a number of questions:

What does connecting to purpose mean? 

Should you only have one purpose?

The Hedgehog and the Fox
“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” 
- Greek poet Archilochus
In his essay, The Hedgehog and the Fox, Isaiah Berlin draws on this quote from Archilochus. He argues that the world is composed of two kinds of people: hedgehogs and foxes. Hedgehogs, such as Plato have a central vision. Foxes, such as Shakespeare, adapt to their environment.   

Collins (2011) relates the story of the hedgehog and the fox:

The fox is a cunning creature, able to devise a myriad of complex strategies for sneak attacks upon the hedgehog. Fast, sleek and beautiful the crafty the fox will surely win. The hedgehog, on the other hand, is a dowdier creature, looking like a genetic mix-up between a porcupine and a small armadillo.

The fox waits in silence at the juncture in the trail. The hedgehog, minding his own business, wanders right into the path of the fox. “Aha, I’ve got you now!” thinks the fox. He leaps out, bounding across the ground, lightning fast.

The little hedgehog, sensing danger, looks up and thinks, “Here we go again. Will he ever learn?” Rolling up into a perfect little ball, the hedgehog a sphere of sharp spikes, pointing outward in all directions.The fox, bounding towards his prey, sees the defence and calls off the attack. Each day some version of this battle between hedgehog and fox takes place and despite the greater cunning of the fox, the hedgehog always wins. 

The Hedgehog and the Fox
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The hedgehog was able to outwit the fox by focusing on one idea rather than many. 

What does that mean for me?

Assemble your passions, talents and economic engine in order to discover purpose. 
Image credit:

Finding purpose is no easy task. As I try to bring together the seemingly unrelated interests of social entrepreneurship and science. Much like trying to assemble an IKEA flatpack, the process can be long and frustrating. Worse yet, it doesn't come with an instruction manual. 

During my university entrance interview I was asked, “What do you want to be doing in ten years time? Answering such a question, can be a complex and confronting task. Instead, I’d like to focus on the question, “What do I want to be saying in ten years time?”

To this, I have a three-part response: 

1. "I feel that I was just born to be doing this."
2. "I get paid to do this? Am I dreaming?"
3. "I look forward to getting up and throwing myself into my daily work and I really believe in what I'm doing."

Work on purpose
Image adapted from

  • What are you deeply passionate about? Love what you do. 
  • What you can be the best in the world at. This involves not only understanding what you are good at, but more importantly what you are not good at. 
  • What drives your economic engine? This will explain how you can make money doing what you love. 

Collins (2001) argues that individuals and corporations are able to achieve greatest success when they operate at the intersection of these three circles. Discovering this intersection is an iterative process. Firstly, ask questions guided by the three circles. Then, debate and execute decisions and finally autopsy the results. Then accelerate this process by repeating the cycle of understanding.

Having an understanding of where this intersection lies, distills your purpose into a "crystalline concept". Rather than the fox who focuses on many ideas at once, adopting the hedgehog concept will provide clarity and insight. 

By employing the hedgehog cycle of understanding, hopefully you will discover that intersection:your purpose. 


Heifetz, R, Grashow, A & Linsky, M 2009, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership. Tools and Tactics for Changing your Organisation and the World, Harvard Business Press: Boston, Massachusetts

Collins, J 2001, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t, HarperBusiness, New York

Berlin, Isaiah 1993, The Hedgehog and the Fox, Elephant Paperbacks, Chicago

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  1. First of all, excellent incorporation of the story of ‘The Hedgehog and The Fox’. It really added a unique flavour to your post.

    I am now intrigued at the idea of purpose, especially towards the question of whether or not we should only have one. I see this as a very important concept to be aware of as an aspiring leader with all the temptations of the 21st century. It is hard to gain focus sometimes and as a result this can cause you to deviate away from your purpose. Just like the Hedgehog it sounds important to focus on one idea at time rather then pursuing many.

    Finally the three questions that you stated in the diagram, I believe are extremely important, especially the one about your economic engine. In some ways it’s unfortunate that you are limited in what you can do without having to involve ‘profit and loss.’ However as you mentioned it is extremely important to remember that you can still do what you love and make money.

    Overall an enjoyable read, with a clever way of explaining how to find your purpose.

    1. Thanks for the feedback Saxbee. Given our studies last semester, I wanted to incorporate storytelling into the post - I'm glad you enjoyed it.