Good to Great - the Hedgehog Concept

1 Samuel 17:32-40

32 “Don’t let anyone lose courage because of this Philistine!” David told Saul. “I, your servant, will go out and fight him!”

33 “You can’t go out and fight this Philistine,” Saul answered David. “You are still a boy. But he’s been a warrior since he was a boy!”

34 “Your servant has kept his father’s sheep,” David replied to Saul, “and if ever a lion or a bear came and carried off one of the flock, 35 I would go after it, strike it, and rescue the animal from its mouth. If it turned on me, I would grab it at its jaw, strike it, and kill it. 36 Your servant has fought both lions and bears. This uncircumcised Philistine will be just like one of them because he has insulted the army of the living God.

37 “The Lord,” David added, “who rescued me from the power of both lions and bears, will rescue me from the power of this Philistine.”

“Go!” Saul replied to David. “And may the Lord be with you!”

38 Then Saul dressed David in his own gear, putting a coat of armor on him and a bronze helmet on his head. 39 David strapped his sword on over the armor, but he couldn’t walk around well because he’d never tried it before. “I can’t walk in this,” David told Saul, “because I’ve never tried it before.” So he took them off. 40 He then grabbed his staff and chose five smooth stones from the streambed. He put them in the pocket of his shepherd’s bag and with sling in hand went out to the Philistine.


Thoughts on the passage:

The Greek poet Archilochus wrote, "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing." It is from this phrase that Jim Collins develops what he calls the hedgehog concept. In a study of companies that made the transition from good to great, he found that those who were successful were able to identify one key thing they could do well, and they did that to achieve great success. By comparison, the other companies might be been successful at a number of different things but lacked the clear focus of what they could do and so failed to succeed.

The analogy of the hedgehog and the fox is simple enough. The fox is a gifted animal. It has speed and cunning and it has numerous ways to catch and eat its prey. By contrast, the hedgehog can really only do one thing, curly into a ball. This one skill, however, is enough to thwart the fox. With its many attributes, the fox has lots of things it can do, but nothing it does to the level of the hedgehog. In a showdown between the two, the hedgehog wins because of its understanding of the one thing it can do well and its ability to execute that one thing.

Our scripture for today frames this same idea in another way. The Israelites are faced with the terrible threat of Goliath. No one in the army thinks they are strong enough to match Goliath in battle. Finally, David comes forward as someone who is willing to serve as their champion. King Saul is elated and promises to give David all the support he needs. So impressed is he with David’s willingness to fight that Saul even outfits David in his own armor. The results of this however are disastrous. David is simply unable to move in Saul’s armor. Rather than try and fight at such a disadvantage, David passes on the armor and instead takes his sling and a few stones as his weapons for going into battle.

The fight between David and Goliath ends up kind of like that of the fox and the hedgehog. On paper, there is no reason that David should win. Goliath is bigger, stronger, better armored, and more experienced. He seems like the better fighter in every category but one, ability to kill the person at long range. David, with his skill with a sling, is able to strike down Goliath before they engage in hand to hand fighting. David might be weaker than Goliath in a lot of different ways, but he knows what he can and cannot do, and sticks to what works for him. It results in his victory and the saving of the people of Israel.

I have always loved the hedgehog concept and the story of David and Goliath because it is so appealing to my sense of strategy and knowledge. The idea of knowing what you can do best and doing it successfully sounds good. In an abstract world it can be really easy to figure out too. The hard part is understanding it in the midst of our day to day lives both personally and as a church. Jim Collins observed that it took many of the companies several years to really understand their hedgehog and what it was that they could do best. If we think about our own lives this makes sense. Most of us were not born with an immediate sense of what made us special, unique or our real calling. As a church, it also takes time to understand what it is that God has uniquely called us and positioned us to do.

In explaining the hedgehog concept and how it applies to the social sector, including churches, Jim Collins talked about the intersection of three points, what are you deeply passionate about, what can you do best in the world, and what drives your resource engine. Each of these parts is equally important. For example, if you are deeply passionate about helping kids read, you have a plan to provide the best tutoring to young children, but you do not have the volunteers to make it function, this will not be a viable hedgehog and you would need to adapt it.

If we think about the early Methodist movement, you can see the three parts. The passion was spreading Scriptural holiness across the land. The resource engine was a wave of circuit riders who would follow the wagons rolling west and starting churches. The thing they did best was a system of classes and bands that organized small groups of people to grow in their personal faith. The end result was the fastest growing church in America, dwarfing all other denominations by the time of the Civil War. It could be argued that since then our decline has come in part because we have lost sight of what our hedgehog is.

It might be hard, but one of the most important things we can do is try and discover what our hedgehog is as a congregation. When he started the United Methodist Church of Resurrection, Adam Hamilton posed himself three questions to answer: why do people need God, why do people need church, and why do people need this church. As we look at how we can be a great church moving into the future, I think we need to answer those questions as well, in particular, why do people need this church? What is it that we can uniquely do that no one else can?

 One of the things I think you cannot do is uncouple the what and the why. There are a lot of whats in our church. What do we do? We worship as a congregation. We serve in missions. We participate in Connexion groups and take our kids to Sunday school to grow in our faith. All of these are things we do, but we cannot lose sight of why we do them. Why do we need to worship God? Why do we need to serve people in need? Why do we need to grow in our faith? Understanding the why helps us to answer those questions that Adam Hamilton posed, and it helps us understand our hedgehog about what it is that we are called by God to do in this community.

Finding a hedgehog is not just the pursuit of an organization, it is good for us to do as individuals as well. We all have a great deal of gifts and abilities and we could use them in a number of different ways. The question is, what is it that God is calling us to do. What is the why, the purpose in our lives? When we know our why, our what starts to have a lot more meaning. Suddenly, the things we do each and every day can be reframed into something totally different. Say your “why” is to be a great grandparent. Now eating healthy and going to the doctor gets framed not as mundane things we have to do, but instead is a part of how you can be there and be present for your grandchildren as long as you can.

David understood his why. His why was to follow God and to defend God’s people against the Philistines. With that why in mind, he responded to Goliath’s challenge and acted in the way he best knew how. He took the skills that God had given him, and he used them to achieve God’s purpose. He avoided the temptations to try and be like everyone else by wearing Saul’s armor. Instead he faced Goliath as God had equipped him to do. He triumphed because of his understanding of God’s purpose, gifts, and mission for him.

We all face Goliaths in our lives. We all face these moments where we feel totally ill-equipped to handle the problems before us. The problem is that we are trying to wear someone else’s armor. We are not making use of the gifts that God has given each one of us. We need to set aside those distractions and looking inside us and listen to God. We need to remember that God has shaped us, formed us, and called us each to do amazing things. When we find that why and that purpose, we too, can do amazing work in the world.


Questions to Ponder:

What is your why?

What are the gifts that God has given you to uniquely live into that why?

What do you think our church can do that no other church or organization can do in Willmar?


O God, we all face giants at times in our lives. Help us to remember that you have given us not only the courage to face those giants, but the unique gifts and abilities to succeed. Help us lean on your wisdom and Spirit when we are facing these giants. Help us to see how you have called us and formed us to do your work in the world. Amen