“Terry, don’t you see? A fish stinks from its head down”
It was three months into my maiden voyage as a cable TV executive, at age 27. I was in the middle of going over a laundry list of problems with my boss that had been vexing me for weeks.
They were all coming from one particular region, and because of these problems the region’s financial performance was lagging all the others.
The region’s manager seemed to be on top of things, and was considered a “good guy” and “personable” by all who knew him. My conversations (which at this point were exclusively over the phone) were always fact filled and positive. “We’ll get better“, he’d promise.
Consequently, I tended to focus more on the problems themselves, and all the nuts and bolts surrounding them. After all, I just came from the public accounting arena as a CPA, which was all about debit and credits, numbers and figures, and processes and controls.
But the problems weren’t getting any better, which is why I decided to visit my boss.
He had been in an executive’s chair for more than 20 years, and it didn’t take long for him to figure out what was going on. Actually, it took about 2 minutes.
He knew from experience that most problems occur because of failures of leadership – in other words, he knew that to blame the process, or the customer facing staff, or a glitch with the product or service itself, was like treating symptoms instead of finding a cure.
“The fish stinks from the head down”
That mental image really made me sit up in my chair (I’m not a big fan of stinky fish heads).
I had never heard that one before. But I didn’t have to ask my boss what it meant, either.
It was one of the most valuable lessons about leadership, and its importance in a business, I ever got before or since.
A leader’s flaws flow downward, always. And in the 32 years since I had that wonderful mental image of the stinky fish heads, I have found that to be true, time after time after time.
Certainly keep in mind that nobody is without flaws, so it’s a matter of figuring out the ones that “stink” the most, and either correcting them, or, if need be, replacing the leader altogether.
That’s what ended up happening in my case, after that visit to my boss. We replaced that manager, and sure enough, in a few months the problems were resolved.
No more smell.
Yes, leadership is important, and yet, after all my years in this business world, it still never seems to get the attention it deserves in the boardrooms and executive suites. We do a lot of job-specific training and development, but not in the same proportion as leadership training. We throw a lot of people head first into the water and ask them to swim.
Companies that “get” the image of the stinky fish heads, and devote the time, money and energy towards developing great leaders, are the ones that will thrive, especially in today’s digitally interconnected (and increasingly complicated) world.
We can have all the best products, services, processes, procedures, financial stewardship, talent, and personalities in the world working in our favor, but without the leadership to guide it all, it just can’t jell. It won’t sing. It won’t succeed.
Don’t forget the stinky fish head. I never will.