fish rots from the head down


fish rots from the head down


  • poor leadership leads to the decline of an organization.
  • leadership has a significant influence on the entire group.
  • problems or corruption in an organization, group or system that often start with its leadership and management.
  • refers to failing organizations and how the blame should be on their “head,” which is their leadership.
  • leaders must take responsibility for maintaining a positive environment.
  • the behavior of leaders sets the tone for the rest of the group.

The proverb “fish rots from the head down” means that if there is a problem in an organization or system, it usually starts at the top with the leadership or those in charge. In simpler terms, when things go wrong, it’s often because the people at the top aren’t doing their job properly. Just like how a fish starts to rot at its head before the rest of its body, problems in an organization can be traced back to its leaders. The phrase does not talk about the biology of the fish and should not be used with a literal meaning. This is because an actual fish starts to rot from its guts, not its head, according to piscine biology.

Example Sentences

  1. The company was bound to be closed sooner or later, considering the kind of managers that they had hired. A fish rots from the head down, after all.
  2. A leader has to be of strong will and good character; otherwise, as it is said, the fish rots from the head down. The whole organization would then have to suffer because of it.
  3. His maid servant doesn’t do anything as asked for. But the fish rots from the head down; look at how unorganized his own life is.
  4. In a happy workplace, positive leadership sets the tone—after all, a fish rots from the head down.


Although not certain, the origination of this proverb may be associated with Sir James Porter’s work, which was published in 1768 and titled ‘Observations on the Religion, Law, Government, and Manners of the Turks‘. It is more popularly used for big organizations nowadays than for individuals. But using it for individuals would not be wrong.

The proverb “the fish rots from the head down” underscores the idea that if there is corruption or decay in an organization, it often starts with its leadership. This sentiment is echoed across cultures. For instance, the Turkish saying “Balık baştan kokar” translates to “the fish starts smelling from the head.”

Similarly, the Russians convey the same message with “Гниение идет сверху,” meaning “Rotting starts from the top.”

Ancient Greek literature, particularly in its tragedies, also touches upon the theme that the actions (or misactions) of leaders can have profound consequences for their followers or subjects.

These variations from different cultures universally highlight the critical influence and responsibility of those in positions of power, suggesting that any rot or decay often originates from the top.

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We use this “proverb” in the Greek culture and I strongly disagree that this “proverb” would in anyway pertain to President Trump, who is constantly attacked by the media and ‘regressives’.

‒ Joyful July 24, 2019

The Famous Persian (Farsi) beloved poet Rumi originated this. But it is more exciting than the known mere translation.

The word he used for rotting is GNDH in Farsi.
You can pronounce GNDH in 2 ways:

1) GaNDeH (Rots)
2) GoNDeH (Grows / Gets Bigger)

He knew what he was doing as he was a master of literature and intended the double meaning.

So the actual half-verse (part of a major piece) he wrote in Farsi and often used by Iranians for many centuries for bad/good leadership is:

“The Fish Rots/Grows From the head, not from tail”

It is pronounced alternatively to mean bad or good leaders, most often though if not always, it is used to criticise and is pronounced GaNDeH meaning rotting from the head.

‒ Kassra October 24, 2018

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