Fish Doesn’t Always Rot From the Head Down……

You may have already heard this saying before: “A fish rots from the head down.”

Since this statement is scientifically inaccurate, it mustn’t be taken in a literal sense, but should only be taken only metaphorically. It implies that whenever an organization or a country fails, it’s the leadership that must be the root cause. I often wondered, in light of my leadership experiences at various levels, whether this statement holds any atom of truth. So here are my two cents, I am jotting these down while sitting in a Gourmet Coffee place in Lexington, Massachusetts, on a Sunday afternoon in Spring 2013.

Interestingly, I had heard this phrase before, for the first time, in the UK, from an English lab technician at Manchester University, during my student years. This phrase, per my understanding then, was originally phrased as “A fish stinks from the head down“. It’s a well-known phrase, and its origin is claimed by many countries, including China, Russia, Poland, England, Germany, Greece, and Turkey just to name a few.

To come back to the main point, is it really true (metaphorically) that the fish begins to rot from its head down, i.e. should the leadership solely be held responsible for the organizational or national chaos and failure? The correct answer, in my view, is “It depends.”; and here is the reason.

In my experience and if we see in general, it is seldom the case  that the blame lies with the leadership exclusively. More than often, the problems start at the lowest level, and then start to propagate bottom up. And most ironically, even though entire organization / nation (generally), or subordinates / citizens (individually) are clearly at fault, the faulty party immediately and invariably points fingers at the leadership, using their weak, fragile and overused excuse that they were simply “following orders”. The latter is also known as typical Nuremberg defense. Thus, more than often in actuality, the leadership ends up shouldering the blame, in the spirit of accountability, as a result of the underperformance, inefficiencies and flaws of their subjects.

dead fish on the beach

Rotten fish from the tail up. Interestingly the head is comparatively least affected. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

That being said, it’s also undeniable that a maniacal dictator or a manager from hell can also drive the nation or organization down the disastrous path. History has many examples to prove this point. The infamous holocaust, WW II, chemical weapon deployments, and some of the infamous genocides that gripped the world in horror, were all primarily driven by dysfunctional dictatorship. It’s always a matter of dispute what role the entire population of subjects (who were merely “following orders”) played in these disasters, for it always takes two to tango. It’s possible in these cases that the fish probably started to rot from the head down, and the rate of decomposition (or rotting) was enhanced further by the corrupt and rotten (or ready-to-rot) system that was already in existence and was acting as a catalyst for the said rotting process.

I recall that just a few weeks ago, I had written a post about dealing with difficult employees, which I consider to be rather relevant in this discussion, for it shows how the challenge begins at the bottom level, and can travel bottom up; see e.g. Dealing With Difficult Employees – A Leadership Challenge. The effectiveness of leadership certainly plays a crucial role in identifying such difficult employee related issues proactively, and taking positive action steps right away to nip the problem at its bud. The same proactive and pre-emptive strategy goes for dealing with faulty leadership, which is not so uncommon either.

The bottom line here is that it’s always good to keep an open mind and objectivity while dealing with (or investigating in a post-mortem of) a rotten fish, figuratively speaking – because the fish may not always start rotting from the head down, but it may begin rotting from the tail up or sometimes even all over its body. :-)

Make a great day!


Sunday, April 28, 2013.

Deodatta V. Shenai-Khatkhate.

Deodatta V. Shenai-Khatkhate. © 2013

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About Deodatta Shenai-Khatkhate

Scientist by profession, with education from various Universities in India, England, Scotland, and U.S.A. Interests include Literature, Music, Photography, Social service, and understanding different cultures.
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2 Responses to Fish Doesn’t Always Rot From the Head Down……

  1. Pingback: Top Posts & Blog Stats: First 6 Months. | Deo Volente

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