What is it about fish and consultants? First there was "Fish where the fish are" ("This Advice Sounds Fishy," August 1998). Then, last month, we learned about the myth of the sea squirt that eats its own brain. Now we arrive at the biggest, oldest, and most frequently cited fish tale of all: "A fish rots from the head down." It is, of course, the ultimate consultant concept. The topic is leadership (a perennial favorite among the consulting corps) — in particular, the failure of leadership. And, perhaps best of all, it's about fish — a fact that guarantees it a spot in every consultant's bait box.
All of which is enough to get the Fast Company Consultant Debunking Unit (CDU) on the case.
To learn the history of this phrase, the CDU spoke with Professor Wolfgang Mieder, chairman of the department of German and Russian at the University of Vermont, author of "The Politics of Proverbs: From Traditional Wisdom to Proverbial Stereotypes" (University of Wisconsin Press, 1997), and one of the world's foremost authorities on proverbs.
According to Professor Mieder, the fish-rot proverb dates back to 1674, when it appeared in a treatise called "An Account of the Voyage to New England." Today the saying exists in an estimated 36 European languages. "The proverb is based on the fact that fish do begin to spoil at the head," explains Mieder. "As a figure of speech, it means that any problem in an organization can be traced back to the boss."
To find a more recent rotting-fish application, the CDU turned to Bob Garratt, professor of corporate governance at London University's Imperial College, chairman of Organization Development Limited (one of Hong Kong's largest management-consulting firms), and author of "The Fish Rots from the Head: The Crisis in Our Boardrooms — Developing the Crucial Skills of the Competent Director" (HarperCollins Business, 1997). Garratt explains the utility of the fish-phrase this way: "I use the metaphor a lot to describe a failing company or a company that is going nowhere — because of a 'rotting head.' "
Garratt argues that the phrase is organizationally, semantically, and biologically correct. "I've been assured by my various biologist friends that the first thing that starts to disintegrate in a fish is the brain," he says.
Not according to David Groman, a fish pathologist at Atlantic Veterinary College, which is part of the University of Prince Edward Island, in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. Groman may not be the Quincy of fish (he's not a forensic fish pathologist), but he does make it his business to know how and why fish die. Which means that he knows how and why fish rot.
Groman found time between his fish autopsies to comment on the rotting-fish metaphor. "I don't know where that proverb comes from," says Gromon. "But it's a poor metaphor. And, I must say, it's biologically incorrect. When a fish rots, the organs in the gut go first. If you can't tell that a fish is rotting by the smell of it, you'll sure know when you cut it open and everything pours out — when all the internal tissue loses its integrity and turns into liquid."
Having learned about dead fish, the CDU next went looking for information about fresh fish: The call went to Richard Yokoyama, manager of Seattle's famous Pike Place Fish Market, which has been in operation since 1930. "Before I buy a fish from one of our dealers, I always look at the belly," says Yokoyama. "On a fish, that's the first thing to go. That's where all the action is — in the gut. If the belly is brown and the bones are breaking through the skin, I toss the fish out. It's rotten."
The CDU couldn't wrap up this fish tale without making one last stop: a visit with the wildly popular rock band Phish. The question: Does Phish rot from the head? To find out, we asked the "fish" of Phish, drummer Jon Fishman. "There's the band Phish, and then there's the man Fish," says Fishman. "My whole life, I've been Fish-something-or-other: Fish-monger, Fish-face, Fish-head. And I've had a lot of experience with rot. For instance, during camp one summer, I got a really bad case of impetigo — a highly contagious skin rash that turns into a gross, scabby flesh wound. And just now, I'm getting over a truly treacherous case of athlete's foot on the pinky toe of my right foot. Not counting the really bad case of dandruff that I'm recovering from, I'd have to say that this Fishman rots from the foot up," admits Fishman.
"But the band is a different matter," he adds. "We're a multiheaded beast. As the CEO of Phish Inc., I'm the head on paper. But Trey [Anastasio], our guitarist and vocalist, is the head onstage. And Mike [Gordon], our bassist, is the pure musical head. We all know that if Mike is having a rotten night, the whole band will suck." Phish's Fishman's response to learning that real fish rot from the belly? "Hey, maybe that explains the bad case of indigestion that I've had lately!"
A version of this article appeared in the June 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.