Strategic Risk Management: the fox and the hedgehog.

The Fox & The Hedgehog

Author: Manu Steens

In this article I write my own opinion, not that of any organization.

Last week, during my vacation, I read a kind of history book. The title is ‘On Grand Strategy’ by John Lewis Gaddis.  It is about figures such as Xerxes, Napoleon, Machiavelli, Lincoln, Adams, Washington, Elisabeth, Philip II, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Von Clausewitz, … .  The great key figure, however, was a relatively unknown person, Isaiah Berlin. He was lucky enough to read ancient texts and to come up with the idea of the duality of the fox and the hedgehog in strategic thinking and acting.  In strategic leadership.

What is this two-unit, and is it always there?

The pure hedgehog is the leader who sets the goals. ‘There we go’. But he doesn’t see the obstacles.  Sometimes he is the ‘man who is always right’.  The pure fox is the man who sees the obstacles everywhere on the track, but does not naturally set goals. He does set achievable milestones however.

Often, leaders think they need to be concerned with goals, and then leave the road to them to the organization’s employees. A typical example of this was Xerxes who crossed the hellespont with a large army, while his advisor left him because he realized that the army was going to get into logistical trouble because of his gigantic magnitude.  Xerxes’ troops were eventually stopped by the Greeks.

An example of someone who did achieve his goal was Lincoln. He was a strategist at heart, in the sense that he set his goal like a hedgehog, which was to abolish slavery. He achieved that goal through devious detours, including bribery, like a fox. The following words are attributed to him:

“A compass […] will show you the geographical north from where you are, but no advice about swamps and deserts and abysses that you encounter along the way. If you run headlong forward on the way to your destination without paying attention to the obstacles and eventually sink into a swamp […] what good is it then to know where the geographic north is?”

So he knew when to consult the compass like the hedgehog, and to bypass the swamp like a fox.

This comes with an important consequence: one has to adapt the goals to the means at one’s disposal.  Because in times of scarcity, the lack of (people and) resources is one of the biggest swamps in which a hedgehog can sink.

After all, this means for risk management that this has an important place in top management.  No good hedgehog survives without a good fox by its side.  Since these two characteristics belong to a single function of strategic leadership, it can be said that there is no well-functioning organization without sound risk management.

The fox, however, is what I call strategic risk management. He will naturally maintain intense contact with the relevant operational risk management, which in itself is in direct contact with (a part of) the environment.  The fox in the strategic leader must therefore be aware of what is going on in operational risk management. It is for this reason that we can say that an organization in which top management is involved in the risk analysis, makes an important leap in terms of risk maturity at the moment that it actively engages in it.

Manu Steens

Manu works at the Flemish Government in risk management and Business Continuity Management. On this website, he shares his own opinions regarding these and related fields. Since 2012, he has been working at the Crisis Centre of the Flemish Government (CCVO), where he has progressed in BCM, risk management, and crisis management. Since August 2021, he has been a knowledge worker for the CCVO. As of January 2024, he works at the Department of Chancellery and Foreign Affairs of the Flemish Government. Here, he combines BCM, risk management, and crisis management to create a tailored form of resilience management to meet the needs of the Flemish Government.

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