The Greek Poet Archilochus said: “The fox knows many things; the hedgehog knows one important thing.” Last week, we witnessed a leadership battle between the fox (President Trump) and the hedgehog (world renowned infectious disease expert Dr Anthony Fauci). The President said, “Dr Fauci is a nice man, but he’s made a lot of mistakes.” Dr Fauci countered in a self-referential way, “I have a reputation, as you probably have figured out, of speaking the truth at all times and not sugar-coating things… And that may be one of the reasons why I haven’t been on television very much lately.”

Now, it’s easy to like Dr Fauci and it’s not too hard to dislike President Trump. The polls confirm that view. But, this battle is more than about who is liked more. The battle personifies the modern problem of leaders (who should act like foxes) dealing with experts (who are trained to be hedgehogs). Consider the following situations:

Elderly deaths primarily in nursing homes make up over a third of the deaths from the pandemic, particularly in New York, where Governor Cuomo directed–with the support of his state public health officials–that thousands of recovering Covid cases be released from hospitals to nursing homes, thus spreading the disease and killing more of the most vulnerable.

Reopening of schools is critical to restoring the economy. Florida Governor DeSantis, explained well the common person’s view, “If fast food and Walmart and Home Depot and look, I do all that, so I’m not looking down on it — but if all that is essential, then educating our kids is absolutely essential.” Thankfully, this deadly virus is sparing our children. Many pediatric physicians believe children should be back in school and not be isolated if safe procedures are in place.

Last but far from least, there’s the recent wave of protests instigated by police killing of George Floyd. Public health officials, including Dr Fauci, have refused to strongly condemn these large scale gatherings which clearly have accelerated the spread of the corona virus. And, the toxic politics of the virus are not just here at home in America. Trump exited the World Health Organization (WHO) for its obvious coziness to and collusion with China where the virus originated.

Let’s leave the current situation and go way back in time to the original story of the Fox and the Hedgehog in the ancient Greek fable by Aesop written 16 centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ:

A Fox swimming across a rapid river was carried by the force of the current into a very deep ravine, where he lay for a long time very much bruised, sick, and unable to move. A swarm of hungry blood sucking flies settled upon him. A Hedgehog, passing by, saw his anguish and inquired if he should drive away the flies that were tormenting him.

“By no means,” replied the Fox, “pray do not molest them.” “How is this?” said the Hedgehog, “do you not want to be rid of them?” “No,” returned the Fox, “for these flies which you see are full of blood, and sting me but little, and if you rid me of these which are already satiated, others more hungry will come in their place, and will drink up all the blood I have left.”

The hedgehog sees the problem and wants to fix it. But the fox is the opposite, embracing the complexity of the situation without being overwhelmed by it. The fox knows he can’t just brush off the flies causing him pain; he must tame his impulses and choose wisely because there are significant long-term consequences beyond the anxieties of the moment.

Now back to the present. In early March of this year as the growing threat of the coronavirus was becoming evident. President Trump is said to have asked Dr Fauci a fateful question — allegedly first raised by Black Rock CEO, Larry Fink — “Why don’t we let this wash over the country?” It was the kind of question a fox-like leader would and should ask an esteemed hedgehog. Dr Fauci is said to have responded, “many people will die.”

This was a pivotal fox-like question President Trump got right. The President repeatedly cautioned that “the cure could not be worse than the disease”, but his early responses were poorly organized and he got trapped in unnecessary conflicts with the press.

Worse, the hedgehogs, like Dr Fauci, responsible for preparing the country for a pandemic were not ready either. Dr Fauci bristled at congressional questions about his failure early on to recommend the wearing of face masks as a general preventative measure, claiming the “paucity” of available masks and his fear of “diverting” needed PPE from medical professionals caring for infected patients. Why were not enough masks stockpiled in the first place? Given these constraints, the only option the experts could offer the President against this “novel” virus was a complete shutdown.

There is a seductive appeal of hedgehogs, especially ones like Dr Fauci. They know something really well and they are so good at giving advice. Even Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice-President Joe Biden fell for this seduction when he said, “listen to the experts, do what they tell you.”

But leaders, especially Presidents, must be careful when dealing with hedgehogs, not to confuse the response the experts want (shut everything down!) with what the country needs (disciplined self selection, targeted quarantines with a keen focus on the hot spots like major cities, and especially protection of medical professionals caring for at-risk populations, and so on).

General Colin Powell once said, “Experts often possess more data than judgment.” In the reality of second and third-order effects where leaders must think and reason, Trump should have gained an earlier consensus to fight through the pandemic with targeted layered approaches. He was not prepared to deal with the hedgehogs’ all or nothing approach which continues to wreak uncertainty and financial havoc. The Cares Act is an example of hedgehog-type thinking to make the pain go away (swatting all those flies) by throwing money at the problem and making things worse in the long-run.

We can’t live risk-free. The sweet spot between raw utilitarianism and risk free absolutism does exist. Remember, annually we still tolerate 1.25 million auto accident deaths; 70,000 fentanyl opioid overdose deaths; and tens of thousands of kids go unloved and undernourished each day, to name only a few of the situations we seem to struggle through without shutting everything down.

Covid-19 is not a simple situation but there are the 4 leadership lessons to ponder from this epic battle unfolding between the Fox and the Hedgehog:

  1. Leaders decide. Experts recommend. President Trump should never have debated the experts in public. Let your proxies do that. Listen to them, then decide.
  2. Consistency is for lawyers not leaders. Each situation is different. The President knew this but he struggled to persuade people that the hedgehogs all or nothing approach was doing more harm than good. People need their leader to explain the choices, the risks and the greater good at stake. Trump is finally doing this.
  3. Incentives matter. Leaders must understand what happens when the incentive structure causes people to act in their own self interest contrary to the common good. Well-capitalized large businesses with robust e-commerce platforms are seizing consumer demand at the expense of small business owners worsening economic inequalities. Another pandemic is washing over us as we witness a wave of small business bankruptcies on a scale not seen since the Great Depression.
  4. Leaders must think like foxes (not hedgehogs) and be able to see the second and third order effects of their decisions while not giving blood sucking flies (like the media) any reasons to torment them more.

Covid-19 revealed the critical leadership deficit we are in the midst of battling: We have too many leaders who surrender their decision making to the hedgehogs and not enough leaders who think and act like foxes.

Peter C. DeMarco

Peter C. DeMarco is an author and executive coach, organizational consultant and ethics educator, with 36 years as a leader including positions as Plant Manager to Division President, COO and CEO running...