Hippos and Hawks in Strategy

Strategic Spirit Animals and Why They Matter

*Quote to Consider: “We need to learn who we are in practice, not in theory.” (Herminia Ibarra)

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All organizations are filled with hippos and hawks. Both serve a strategic purpose, and it’s important to know how to spot each one. 

I started thinking about this distinction while at the zoo with my kids. We wandered into an unfamiliar exhibit. It had a substantial rope bridge to a little elevated island of sorts, overlooking a swampy naturalistic pool, complete with reeds and vegetation to camouflage the glass and steel structure.

Suddenly, directly beneath us, a gray fleshy submarine rose from the dark water. It was an enormous hippopotamus. 

And then he just kept walking on. That was it. Completely oblivious, he blithely lumbered onward, without a care for the environment around him. 

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Classification based on animal characteristics, real or imagined, isn’t new. Freeman Dyson once sliced mathematicians into “birds” or “frogs” based on whether they “survey broad vistas,” or play in the mud, solving problems “one at a time.” Dyson noted it would be “stupid to claim that birds are better than frogs because they see farther, or that frogs are better than birds because they see deeper. The world of mathematics is both broad and deep, and we need birds and frogs working together to explore it.” Another writer later applied the same split to physics

This binning is a variant of “zoomorphism,” a technique that’s most famous modern use comes from Isaiah Berlin’s 1953 essay, “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” Berlin rebooted an ancient Greek parable (by Archilochus) and planted this line in the popular consciousness: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows but one thing.” Foxes and hedgehogs have since run wild as animalistic characteristics describing everything from judgment to prediction, and grand strategy to America’s Founding Fathers. 

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So what about hippos?

Hippopotamuses are the world’s third largest land animal. Their sheer size drives off most predators (they average 11 feet long, 5 feet tall, and weigh about 1-2 tons, according to my zoo’s information board). 

But it’s less their mass than their behavior that stands out. Hippos are territorial. They’ve developed a jaw-dropping move to mark their territory—they spin their tails while defecating in order to literally fling their feces on their terrain. It’s a shit shotgun. 

Second, hippos are hierarchical, and have elaborate ways of demonstrating rank within their “pod.” Hippos derive their name from the Greek for “river horse.” They spend roughly 16 hours a day in the water. 

But here’s the kicker: Hippos can’t swim. Yep, that’s right, hippos spend two-thirds of their lives in an environment they’ve never bothered to master. 

This collection of characteristics tracks well with how I think about astrategic individuals in an organization. These are the people that do not routinely think about strategy in any meaningful sense. They may be a part of a strategic discussion or decision. They may have a role that would lend itself to strategic thought. But they do not think about orientation toward success at either the organizational or individual level. They don’t really try to work out how to change the game.

These astrategic “hippos” just defer to hierarchy. They follow the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion (the lead “HiPPO”). If the hedgehog “knows but one thing,” the hippo does too—The Boss Is Always Right. 

Hippos also keep it simple by sticking to their territory. Not a lot of range here. Pretty slow. And while they’ll always waddle in the water, they never learn to swim. Why would they, when they’ve got it so good?

Hawks and other birds of prey, oppositely, have mastered their medium. Their aerial awareness is exceptional, owing to their advanced eyesight. Their eyes have 2 foveae, one central and one peripheral (while humans only have central). This gives them a picture-in-picture quality, the ability to see in specific focus and wide-angle context. This is what enables hawks and eagles and other birds of prey to track rabbits and rodents from miles away. Hawks range widely.

Strategic thinkers in any organization are hawks. They often fly solo. They’re naturally opportunistic—find an opening and exploit it, quickly. Most importantly, strategists see the big picture and the small scale. It’s this strategic split-screen view that’s key. 

No organization succeeds if it’s all hippo and no hawk, or all hawk and no hippo. You need both. You need both deference to authority and those that rise above rank. Every organization needs hippos to carry out orders, to be loyal and grounded. Every organization similarly needs a few hawks that soar and see and spot both current position and a vision of what lies ahead. We’re better off with both hippos and hawks in the organizational ecosystem.

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A few thoughts on the distinction between hippos and hawks.

First, differentiation matters. If you’re in charge, and the only thing you see is murky water with eyes and nostrils poking out, you’ve got a problem. You’re going to want to recruit a hawk or two to hover overhead. 

Second, harmonizing the hippos and hawks is key to all leaders at every level. Just having them isn’t enough; it’s how well you play the hand you’re dealt.  

Third, if you’re a hawk, be a hawk. If you’re a hippo, be a hippo. Own what you are, respect the other, and make choices that bring you closer to your strategic spirit animal. 

Finally, it’s really hard to break that strategic DNA. There’s a reason hippos don’t fly and hawks don’t swim. Sometimes, nature commands and we’d be foolish not to obey.

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*Question to Reflect: Who are the hippos in your organization, and who are the hawks? Are there any hawks trapped in a hippo pod, or hippos trying to fly? 

*Editor’s Note: Please leave a comment, and, if you enjoyed this, forward it on to anyone you think might benefit or find it of interest. Your word-of-mouth mention to another person means everything to this little community’s continued growth. All the very best & see you next week, Matt