The character of leadership

We all try and disguise our character at times, but when you are a leader there is no place to hide. MICHEL HOGAN

Michel Hogan

By Michel Hogan

When I started this short series on leadership, I looked at the different shades of courage in leadership, then continued last week exploring the paradox of humility and well as a driver for a very specific type of leader called Level 5. This week I am going to spend some time on the “character of leadership.”

Whether we want to or not, every leader brings their character (flaws and bonuses) to the role. In his new book “Hedgehogs and Foxes – Character, Leadership and Command in Organisations” author Abraham Zaleznik uses the Isaiah Berlin parable of hedgehogs and foxes – hedgehogs know one big thing, while foxes know many things.

He applies that to leadership – hedgehog leaders reduce down fitting their view into to one thing, while fox leaders are more adaptable and able to deal with complexity.

But underneath these manifestations of leadership is character. Quoting Zaleznik: “Even when leaders try to hide and disguise their character, their traits are recognisable to others.”

Zaleznik is not the first to borrow the Isaiah Berlin parable of “the hedgehog and the fox”. I have previously referenced it in relationship to company strategy. And, noted palientologist Stephen Jay Gould also used it in his book titled “The Hedgehog the Fox and the Magister’s Pox” about the divide between science and religion. Read the original parable here.

I don’t think anyone would argue that character defines leadership. Both successes and failures in leadership are often reduced to a discussion of the “character” of the leader. The previous blogs on this topic to a great degree were about the character traits of courage, humility and will.

Our characters are not usually shaped by a single event; rather it starts in childhood and from that point we are influenced and moulded by the experiences and relationships throughout our lives. No big news there.

But we don’t often stop and think about the role those same things have in shaping the type of leaders we are.

  • Do you compulsively try to repeat in present what has succeeded in the past?
  • Do you seek consensus at all costs?
  • Do you try and remain part of the decision process or delegate early on?
  • Are you more interested in process than substance?

Are you more of a hedgehog or a fox?

For more about Abraham Zaleznik’s new book go here and here.

See you next week!


Alignment is Michel’s passion. Through her work with Brandology here in Australia, and Brand Alignment Group in the United States, she helps organisations align who they are, with what they do and say to build more authentic and sustainable brands.

For more Cultural Leadership blogs, click here.



Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments