‘The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.’

These are the words of the Greek poet Archilochus, made famous by the philosopher Isaiah Berlin.

Are you a fox or a hedgehog?

Berlin suggests that leaders can be divided into two categories – hedgehogs, who lead by expertise and mastery, or foxes, who are versatile in multiple areas and yet masters of none.

Berlin’s categorization is an interesting one.  Consider how we select or evaluate leaders – do we favor one type over the other?  What type of leader would be better served to lead an organization through troubling times?

The expert hedgehog or the versatile fox?

I would suggest neither.  There are clear strengths and trade-offs for each type.

I believe that organizations need leaders who are a cross of both.   Leaders with the laser-like mastery of the hedgehog, combined with fox-like versatility and openness to possibilities.

Berlin suggests the Russian thinker Leo Tolstoy as an example.  Tolstoy was one who “was by nature a fox, but believed in being a hedgehog.”  Imagine that!

Similarly, any leader who is disposed to and excels in one approach can start thinking and acting his/her way towards the other.

The term “T-shaped leaders” describes people who posses deep capabilities in a core function (the vertical part of the T), with broad capacities in diverse areas (the horizontal part of the T) – just like Tolstoy, though the T was not named after him.

While leadership is often seen as a vertical progression of mastery, it is equally important for leaders to seek experiences that would widen their horizons, challenge their perspectives, and develop fox-like agility.

With this in mind, how can we develop T-shaped leaders?

What part of the T are leaders lacking in organizations today?

4 thoughts on “In Search Of T-Shaped Leaders

  1. While there are different types of leaders and understanding how things interact or work well with each other is key to organizational success. If a leader is a specialist, and has the social skills to ask questions coupled with the awareness that they need more information to understand, continue to learn and be a better leader then they will grow in success.
    It is when someone is a specialist (or hedgehog in this example) and they remain limited by their expertise and/or awareness rather than connecting a few more dots along the way (such as a fox may) to partner with others that can be a challenge for some to become a better leader. The key to unlock this is in the ability of the leader to be humble, ask questions to get the answers they will need to make better informed decisions.
    For a great T-shaped leader it is in finding a balance of knowledge, good social skills to ask great questions, get the information and ability to understand the larger picture as well as the smaller components of the system to facilitate a healthy learning environment that fosters success. This is truly a wonderful person to work with because they can create synergy within an organization.
    It’s when communication is thwarted and high quality information does not flow that a hedgehog or a fox would be challenged to succeed. When this happens, the hedgehog may be more comfortable in retreating into their area of expertise and the fox may be more comfortable in seeking out other opportunities. T-shaped Leaders are key to the success of some organizations, however success is never an accident. Maintaining a healthy corporate culture, leveraging change management and life long learning are required for a solid foundation in which T-leaders can thrive!

  2. While there are different types of leaders and understanding how things interact or work well with each other is key to organizational success. If a leader is a specialist, and has the social skills to ask questions coupled with the awareness that they need more information to understand, continue to learn and be a better leader then they will grow in success.
    It is when someone is a specialist (or hedgehog in this example) and they remain limited by their expertise and/or awareness rather than connecting a few more dots along the way (such as a fox may) to partner with others that can be a challenge for some to become a better leader. The key to unlock this is in the ability of the leader to be humble, ask questions to get the answers they will need to make better informed decisions.
    For a great T-shaped leader it is in finding a balance of knowledge, good social skills to ask great questions, get the information and ability to understand the larger picture as well as the smaller components of the system to facilitate a healthy learning environment that fosters success. This is truly a wonderful person to work with because they can create synergy within an organization.
    It’s when communication is thwarted and high quality information does not flow that a hedgehog or a fox would be challenged to succeed. When this happens, the hedgehog may be more comfortable in retreating into their area of expertise and the fox may be more comfortable in seeking out other opportunities. T-shaped Leaders are key to the success of some organizations, however success is never an accident. Maintaining a healthy corporate culture, leveraging change management and life long learning are required for a solid foundation in which T-leaders can thrive!

  3. Jeff
    The T shaped manager is an interesting concept, but I’m not sure it’s achievable. If we look to models such as learning styles or Social Styles as a guide, they tell us that an Analytical person who thrives on the depth of knowledge. This is in stark contrast to the Expressive person who is more interested in the having breadth of some knowledge in many areas.
    A person’s desire for depth or breadth is in their wiring and most people prefer one or the other. This is very consistent with my experience with clients over the past fifteen years.
    Interesting concept.
    Thanks,
    Jim

  4. Jeff
    The T shaped manager is an interesting concept, but I’m not sure it’s achievable. If we look to models such as learning styles or Social Styles as a guide, they tell us that an Analytical person who thrives on the depth of knowledge. This is in stark contrast to the Expressive person who is more interested in the having breadth of some knowledge in many areas.
    A person’s desire for depth or breadth is in their wiring and most people prefer one or the other. This is very consistent with my experience with clients over the past fifteen years.
    Interesting concept.
    Thanks,
    Jim

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