What Does Fish Rots from the Head Down Mean?

A Fish Rots from the Head Down Meaning

Definition: A bad leader will cause an organization to deteriorate.

Origin of Fish Rots from the Head Down

Most sources simply call this an ancient proverb of unknown origin. Some speculate that it came from the Greeks, or the Chinese, or the Turks originally. However, there is no definitive proof.

Early English examples credit the Turks. It dates back to at least the 1600s.

It comes from the idea that after is fish is caught and killed, it first begins to spoil at the head. However, some biologists say that this is not factual. They say that the first part of a fish to go bad is its intestinal system.

Regardless, it is now a common metaphor to argue in favor of good leadership for businesses and other groups. It means that if the person in charge of something is bad at his or her job, no one working under that person will be able to do a good job either.

Examples of Fish Rots from the Head Down

fish stinks from the head down The dialogue below shows two women at a meeting for a non-profit they are a part of.

Mila: Betty, I want to ask your opinion about something before I mention it to the whole group.

Betty: What is it?

Mila: This group was so much more effective when you were the leader of it. Since Bob has been in charge, we haven’t gotten anything done. He is disorganized and doesn’t have the social skills to bring everyone together. I mean, he can’t unite everyone behind the organization’s message and vision. I want to call for a vote to choose a new leader.

Betty: Yes. I know it can’t be me, since I’ve already served the maximum amount of time. But bad leadership is incredibly harmful. They say fish rots from the head down.

the fish rots from the headThis dialogue shows a couple of roommates talking about city elections.

John: Amanda, I’m on my way to go vote. Do you want to join me?

Amanda: No, thanks. I’m not registered to vote.

John: Are you serious? Don’t you care about who is mayor for our town? Don’t you care about the welfare of our city’s citizens?

Amanda: I do care about people’s welfare; I just don’t believe that politicians have much of an effect on real life.

John: Fish rots from the head down. If our city’s leader is incompetent, then our whole city will suffer.

More Examples

This quote is about a priest who stole from a church. The man giving the quote is explaining the bad effects of this theft.

  • “You know the Greek expression, the fish rots from the head? Well that’s what’s going on here,” Gottreich told me. “And the churches know it, and the parishioners know it, and that’s why donations are down all over the Metropolis. There are so many questions, including, where did Dokos get the $100,000? (for restitution)” –Chicago Tribune

The second excerpt is about the man leading an agency, and the problems he and his team have caused.

As the saying goes, the fish rots from the head.

Samson’s three years leading the board of the bi-state agency have produced a list of disasters longer than the George Washington Bridge backups engineered by his underlings. –New York Daily News


The idiom fish rots from the head means that if the person in charge does a bad job, it will have negative implications for everyone working under him or her.