I was fortunate enough to attend Harvard Business School for my executive education. The class that I was part of was made up of entrepreneurs from around the world. An Indian gentleman repeatedly made this statement “A fish rots from the head down.” I had never heard the saying, and I honestly had no idea what he meant. He said it so often that I cringed when I heard the words come out of his mouth. It was his answer for literally everything.
Now I know exactly what he meant and why he used the statement as frequently as he did. The statement “a fish rots from the head down” means that leadership is the root cause of an organizations failure and demise. This is true whether that organization is a country, a company, or a sales force. How could it be otherwise?
You Are Responsible for What’s Broken
If the culture is broken, only leadership can fix it. If leadership doesn’t establish and protect a healthy culture, some unhealthy culture will fill that vacuum. If the leadership culture itself is unhealthy, there begins the rot, and soon the fish is lost. If a pocket of negativity and cynicism exists, it’s because leadership hasn’t cut it out of the organization—especially when the pocket of negativity comes from the leadership ranks.
If the strategy or direction is broken, only leadership has the power to decide and to change it. The decision as to who the company is and how it will compete and win belongs to leadership. If the vision is wrong, it is leadership’s vision. Leadership chooses where and how to compete. If that’s wrong, leadership has to do something to change it.
If the organization doesn’t execute, leadership that is responsible for that failure. Only leadership can demand and ensure that the organization does the work, that it keeps its promises. Leadership sets and keeps the standards.
If a company is failing because they have the wrong people in place, it’s leadership that allows the wrong people stay. It’s leadership that can demand that the right people be hired and retained, and that those who damage the company’s results quickly find their way out of the organization.
This list is endless. It is why leadership is critical at all levels of an organization.
To keep the fish from rotting, the head has to be smart enough to look at what is doing—or not doing—and make the necessary changes there first. Regardless of what the changes may be, and regardless of the pain that accompanies those changes. Only leadership has the power to make those changes, even if they need the support of their entire team to execute them.
It’s the only way to keep the fish from rotting.
Why should leadership first look to itself as the root cause of failure?
Who is responsible for a country’s, a company’s, or a sales force’s results?
Why can’t a fish rot from the bottom up?
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