Does a fish stink from the head?

The phrase ‘a fish stinks from the head’ is a common expression that refers to the criticality of leadership in organizations. Typically, it’s used when strategies are failing and direction is unclear. The implication is that those at the top need to shape up, demonstrating the commitment and behaviors that are required to get back on track. At root, it’s founded on the notion that those in positions of authority are central to success and have a responsibility to lead from the front.

And I agree. Taken as a whole, the expression contains an underlying truth that we do well to remember. But like all aphorisms, it’s also a simplification, and if followed too literally can blind us to other, more subtle, aspects of leadership that are just as vital to maximizing performance.  Not the least of these is listening to the well of talent, experience, care, and attention that’s embedded in those with less senior positions.   

I was reminded of this last week when reading the summary of the report into the holding of parties at the center of UK government during the strict lockdowns of 2020.  At the time I was living in London and can well understand the anger of the British public at the apparent disregard of the rules by their elected leaders. The idea that the lockdown applied only to the ‘little people’ is classic ‘stink from the head’ behavior. 

But it was a line about the fear of speaking up that caught my eye. What the report also highlights, is that not everyone working in Downing Street was happy with the slack attitude of those at the top. One especially relevant passage states:

Some staff members wanted to raise concerns about behaviors they witnessed at work, but at times felt unable to do so. No member of staff should feel unable to report or challenge poor conduct where they witness it.”

This is bang on the money, and while shocking that it should be the case in central government—where presumably, the vast majority of employees will be highly intelligent and astute individuals—it is not uncommon in many organizations. The result is that their talent and experience, and perhaps most importantly, what I referred to earlier than their ‘care and attention is lost to any assessment of the overall direction of travel. At worst, this can result in tragedies far greater than the fallout of a political scandal.

In the 1990s Korean airlines had one of the worst safety records in the world, despite having well-trained pilots and the same planes as equivalent companies across the globe. Flight recordings of high-profile crashes demonstrated that communication in the cockpit was shaped by a cultural hierarchy that meant subordinates were unwilling to question those in authority.  Even when fuel levels became critically low, co-pilots of the now infamous Avianca 52 fight to JFK airport did not directly challenge or inform the captain who in his tunnel vision had lost sight of these critical details.  The plane crashed just outside New York.

The history of the Korean airways has been well documented, with popular summaries in Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers and Mathew Syed’s, excellent Black Box Thinking. What’s relevant here, is that to solve the crisis, Korean airlines embarked on a program designed to ensure that all on the flight deck had a voice, and were able to speak up when they had concerns. What’s more, their speaking out was to be seen not as a problematic challenge to authority, but a positive contribution to the overall safety and success of the mission. 

In the case of passenger airlines, the need for coordination and collective contribution seems obvious to us now. Indeed, the hierarchical deference of Korea was always much less of a problem in those cultures (such as the US) where there is a lower prevalence of what is sometimes known as ‘power-distance’.  But as the recent report into the UK government—and countless examples of company failures—demonstrates, there’s still a long way to go in ensuring free-flowing communications up and down organizations.

The reality is that large companies are just as complex to steer as an airliner, or for that matter Ten Downing Street or the President’s Office. The need, therefore, to pay attention to the concerns of those closest to the implementation of decisions is absolutely vital.  No leader has all the answers; even the best can become distracted or fixated; their very distance from subordinates can distort perspective and lead to well-meant but wildly misconceived judgments.

This is why it’s equally vital that we have cultures and values which counteract these tendencies. The worst boardrooms are not necessarily those lacking in experience, it’s those that are echo chambers, reinforcing the perspectives of a single leader or an elite few. The history of the last thundered years is one in which the reach of communications has proliferated beyond any recognition, and yet so many of its worst tragedies—from the First World war to the Great Depression to China’s Cultural Revolution, to name but a few—could all have been avoided had subordinates spoken out sooner. 

Of course, those speaking must also listen. Somewhat ironically, given the title of this post, fish do not have ears as such, but they do have intense sensitivity to sound and vibrations around them—in some species, it’s integral to their bones! No doubt UK Premier Boris Johnson wishes that he’d listened more to the concerns of those in his own office – for a politician supposedly in touch with the people, his oversight is astonishing. Whether he’d have paid attention is a question that most of those who sit in judgment on him will now answer for themselves. What’s beyond doubt is that in his laxity he’s lost control, and that regaining it may well be beyond him. 

There are lessons here for us all.

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