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  1. What the Proverb "A Fish Rots from the Head Down" Can Teach Sales Leaders
  2.  If You Are a Sales Leader, You Are Responsible for What’s Broken
  3.  A Fish Rots from the Head, But the Head Also Leads the Way: A Lesson for Sales Leaders

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. One day, our professor posed a question to the class. I don't even remember what the question was, but I distinctly remember the answer...


One of my classmates, a gentleman from India, raised his hand and responded, “A fish rots from the head down". I was struck by the unfamiliarity of the expression (and maybe a bit disgusted by it).

I had never heard it before and I honestly had no idea what it meant. Over the course of the program, I heard him repeat it so often that I cringed when I heard the words come out of his mouth. It seemed like this odd expression was his response to just about everything.

After several more years of life experience, I now know exactly what he meant and why he used the expression as frequently as he did. The statement “a fish rots from the head down” means that, in addition to being a major contributing factor in an organization's success, leadership is also the root cause of an organization's failure and demise. This is true whether that organization is a country, a company, or a sales force. How could it be otherwise?


What the Proverb "A Fish Rots from the Head Down" Can Teach Sales Leaders

Leadership is a wonderful blessing and a heavy burden. We often attribute the successes of our organizations to good leadership, rightly so, of course. Good leaders have the ability to cast a vision and inspire others to follow through great trials and uncertainties, bringing themselves and others to new heights they had perhaps never dared to dream of and earning the recognition and praise of their colleagues and subordinates. There is, however, a less glamourous side of leadership - one that is equally important to understand, prior to accepting any position of leadership. Responsibility has two sides.


Related: How To Lead: The Leadership E-Book

If You Are a Sales Leader, You Are Responsible for What’s Broken

If the culture is broken, only leadership can fix it. If leadership does not establish and protect a healthy culture, that vacuum will be filled by some unhealthy culture. 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 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 the 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, only leadership 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.

The list of significant problems that poor leadership can cause is endless and is much more dangerous to an organization than any emerging competitor. That's why good leadership is critical at all levels of an organization.

To keep the fish from rotting, the head has to be smart enough to evaluate what it is doing—or not doing—and make the necessary changes there first regardless of what the changes may be or of the pain that must accompany those changes. Only leadership has the power to make those changes, though they will need the support of their entire team to execute them.

It’s the only way to keep the fish from rotting.


A Fish Rots from the Head, But the Head Also Leads the Way: A Lesson for Sales Leaders

I promise this won't be a fish anatomy lesson. Being a sales manager or a leader of any type is a heavy responsibility. By accepting a leadership position you have, like it or not assumed responsibility for all of the successes AND failures of every single person under your leadership.

The buck stops with you. It's not just about creating policies and mandates. It's about leading by example. The head doesn't just tell the body where to go, it goes there first.

So if your organization is experiencing low productivity or laziness or any other significant issues, you must be the one to address them. It's not easy, but if you're in a leadership position, it's because somebody believed that you could handle it. If that scares you a little, you're in good company. But you don't have to do it alone.

Sales leaders looking to create positive change and meet with other like-minded leaders are welcome to join us for our Sales Accelerator course where you'll develop the tools you need to drive positive change in your organization.


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Sales 2012 2022
Post by Anthony Iannarino on February 2, 2022

Written and edited by human brains and human hands.

Anthony Iannarino
Anthony Iannarino is a writer, an author of four books on the modern sales approach, an international speaker, and an entrepreneur. Anthony posts here daily.
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