Change Communication Culture Leadership Self awareness

Fishy smell

When there’s no safe environment to share our thoughts and to discuss what may not be going well openly, the culture will suffer, and eventually, results will suffer.

“A fish stinks from the head.”


Rumi, a Turkish poet who lived towards the end of the 13th century, wrote “The Third Book of Masnavi,” where the phrase appears as follows: “Fish begins to stink at the head, not the tail.”

We often hear this quote in a business environment.

I’m sure you’ve heard it before, and it basically means that when problems arise in a business, it makes sense to look at the top of the company first.

In other words, it’s leaders.

So if you happen to read this and you’re in charge of a struggling business, it makes sense to start looking in the mirror first. 

A little self-reflection on how you may have caused or contributed to the problem(s) needs to come first. 

And that’s where the problem often begins or never stops.

Once we’re at the top, it’s hard to maintain the discipline of self-reflection. 

First, we work hard day in and day out. 

Leading a business is not a nine-to-five job with ample time for (self) reflection.

We need to develop the discipline to reflect and reflect on what went well and what went wrong. 

This fundamental principle, religiously adopted by the most outstanding leaders and companies, often is canceled first when time is lacking.

Second, we don’t get the feedback we need.

It’s lonely at the top. 

Most companies don’t have a culture of transparency, continuous feedback, and humble leaders open to listening and discussing what’s needed to progress the company forward. 

When there’s no safe environment to share our thoughts and to discuss what may not be going well openly, the culture will suffer, and eventually, results will suffer. 

Third, we love or have fallen in love with power. 

Power is addictive.

I’ve been in positions of power, and I would lie if I said I didn’t enjoy it (for a while).

When you’re in a position of power, it’s easy to start believing you know it all. Especially when there’s no culture of feedback and your context is high on hierarchy.

Certain countries are, by nature, high on hierarchy. Certain companies are as well. Things may go wrong easily when there’s a natural ‘tendency’ to (overly) respect hierarchy.

Fourth, and last but not least, is a lack of clarity.

We often believe that where we’re going and how we’re going there is perfectly clear.

Often it’s not. We have a structural tendency to under-communicate. 

And what we communicate is often not clear. Vague direction, too many priorities, unclear responsibilities.

Time. Feedback. Power. Communication.

Those are the four components to look deeper into when things are not going your way. 

Am I building in enough time to reflect, plan and align?

Am I building a culture of feedback?

Am I in love with my power, or am I being humble?

Am I communicating enough? 

One last thought. 

What if I’m a new leader in a company that’s struggling? What do I do now?

You’re in charge now, and people are looking at you to get the ship in calmer waters. 

From my experience, you have about 60 days (90 days makes you lazy). If things don’t start to improve by then, people will start asking themselves whether you’re the right person in the right place. 

But the four questions and principles above remain. 
  1. Make time.
  2. Create feedback.
  3. Communicate often. 
  4. Practice humility.

That’s how a fish stops smelling.

Your turn: What do you smell? 

Do more of what makes you happy!


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Erikjan Lantink
Business & Leadership Coach

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