Foxes vs hedgehogs: 7 evidence-based leadership tips for headteachers

Foxes vs hedgehogs: 7 evidence-based leadership tips for headteachers

Is your school full of hedgehogs or foxes? Hedgehogs are people who are committed to certain ideas, and will stick with them even when they've been shown to fail. Foxes are people know lots about everything, but not everything about anything – they are pragmatic, prone to self-doubt and willing to admit when they are wrong.

In his 2005 study Expert Political Judgement: how good is it and how can we know? psychologist Philip Tetlock explored the analogy of foxes and hedgehogs (first introduced by philosopher Isaiah Berlin).

He found that being a subject expert can often get in the way of making an accurate forecast or prediction because past experience stops you assessing the data objectively. Hedgehogs are committed to their ideas and conclusions, and can be extremely reluctant to alter their opinions, even if their forecasts have gone wrong. In the study, Tetlock found that hedgehogs' predictions were actually less accurate than random guesses.

Foxes, on the the other hand, were more accurate in their predictions – although they only just beat the random guesses. Tetlock found that these people sought out information and evidence from many different sources and used a number of different techniques to analyse it. They tended to be much less confident about their predictions and forecasts, and were willing to change their minds and admit when they had made mistakes.

So why are specialists' forecasts less accurate than the generalists'? In the 2016 book Superforecasting: the art and science of prediction by Tetlock and Dan Gardner, the pair argue that the hedgehog has a "set of spectacles" which dominates how they see situations and informs their subsequent predictions. Unfortunately, these spectacles are tinged with a particular colour, which distorts their forecasts. This leads them to try and squeeze everything they see into a narrow frame of reference, even when it may not fit. But the glasses make them believe that they are seeing things more accurately than others, so their confidence in what they are seeing actually increases.

So how can you behave more like a fox? Tetlock and Gardner suggest a range of strategies, which I have adapted here for the use of evidence-based school leaders:

Strike the right balance when you see evidence

Don't overreact when new evidence is made available (it may just be random noise), but don't simply ignore it either. Take a measured, methodical approach.

Get outside opinions

​You know your school well, but that doesn't mean outsiders can't provide useful insights. They may spot things that you have missed or taken for granted, so keep an open mind.

Break problems down

When faced with something difficult, split the issue into its components parts, some of which you'll know more about than others. You need to recognise that although you may be an expert in one area of the problem, you may not be an expert in everything – so seek out those who are.

Look for clashing forces

Be aware of things in your school that may be pushing and pulling in opposite directions. There may be factors that have a positive impact – wellbeing programmes to boost to staff engagement, for example – clashing with external factors (such as poorly planned external curriculum changes) that may have a detrimental impact.

Display the right amount of confidence

Your decisions as a leader will involve making judgements – these may be right and they may be wrong. Allow yourself some degree of doubt, but not so much so that you become paralysed with indecision. The best thing you can do is ensure that whatever decision you make is made with positive intent.

Trace your mistakes

When things are unsuccessful, go back and find out why. When you do this, be careful to avoid fundamental attribution error. It's not always about what others have done or not done, or circumstances beyond your control; sometimes you just get it wrong because your thought process is prone to biases.

Bring out the best in others (and let others bring out the best in you)

Leadership is not all about you, it's about everyone – and that means creating an environment for making decisions which brings out the positive traits of your personality and those of your colleagues. Ultimately the key to being a better, evidence-based school leader is giving it a go – you'll make mistakes but you will get better.


This blog is written by Dr Gary Jones, fellow of the Centre for Evidence-Based Management at the University of Winchester. It is an edited version of a blog that first appeared here.

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