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The Stinking Fish Rots at the Head First

7 July 2022

My grandfather grew up quite poor, but worked his way up the engineering ladder to become an extremely successful executive of several major companies. Throughout this time, he made many sacrifices to learn and relentlessly practice his leadership craft. For this reason, I trust his ideas on a wide manner of leadership topics - he spent countless hours during both my childhood and adult life lecturing me on the virtues of good leadership and the vices when it is lacking.

One of his favorite sayings was this: “the stinking fish rots at the head first.” It’s an old proverb, from whose origin I do not know, but its meaning is simple:

Lack of good leadership causes the majority of failures of any organization.

In general, most organizations (companies, teams, etc.) that have a reasonably-good mix of capable members can perform well with adequate leadership. With excellent leadership, the organization can perform even better, even become the best in their field without the “best” members. But with poor leadership, a team with the best players in the league will always fall short.

In my career, I’ve worked on both low- and high-performing teams: at blue-chip companies whose bottom-barrel culture and dismal productivity would shock you, and at scrappy new market entrants that innovate the incumbents out of the industry. At no point did I think the teams I worked on suffered from either too much or too little talent. Nearly always, we had the right mix of people with the right combination of skills to complete the job well. Leadership always made the difference.

At my first job out of school, I had my first taste of what it was like to work under a total abdication of leadership. The company I joined was massive, had more money than it needed, and had been the world leader in a fascinating industry for decades. At the time, it was undergoing a massive culture shift. The older “grind for the boss until you die” mentality fought a bloody guerilla war with my generation’s “value for value” mindset about our careers. Despite the company’s great market success, salary weren’t competitive, benefits kept getting the axe, and morale was at rock-bottom levels.

To illustrate, the CFO’s idea of motivating new hires was to give a speech with this punchline: “You might think you’re here to build a fleet of super cool, next-generation ships, but truthfully, the purpose of the company is to create value for shareholders”. I’m not kidding, this is no exaggeration; an actual stump speech by one of the top executives at the company. True? Sure, from his department’s perspective - without a doubt. Good for motivating the worker bees? Actually had quite the opposite effect.

This attitude trickled down to all levels of the organization. The team I joined had suffered setback after setback with the latest set of design reviews - the customer wanted us to redesign our entire system, despite it already being months late. Our supervisor had no vision for the project, and the team leader spent half of each of our meetings berating each person publicly about why their portion was late, rather than providing them sufficient resources to get the job done. It was miserable. It’s been several years since I left the company and I’m sure that there’s a chance they still haven’t finished that project yet.

Contrast this with my next job: I joined a small, upstart team within a relatively unknown company trying to break into the fairly difficult space systems industry. Our program director had immense passion for the application, and his enthusiasm energized us to rapidly learn about the new environment for which we were developing and aggressively iterate through our concepts. Within a few short months, we developed a detailed solution for the customer, who was immensely pleased with our approach. While unfortunately the customer eventually decided they didn’t want to proceed with the project (for reasons outside our control), our design review was quite a smashing success and set up our team for plenty of follow-on work on other programs within the space systems arena.

Recently, I watched Jocko Willink’s excellent TEDx Talk on “Extreme Ownership”, and found his speech extremely compelling. Without realizing it, I had already adopted his leadership mindset of taking ownership of all problems, regardless if they’re my fault or not. Instead of pointing fingers, or passing the buck to someone else, taking ownership of every setback means that you immediately have the responsibility and the agency for solving it. Knowing who or what is responsible for causing the problem matters only for determining a solution in the shortest amount of time. But to implement that solution, you as the leader need to take responsibility for the problem. I do not care who caused the problem in the first place, I just want to learn how to fix it. Or, rather: I care about knowing who caused it, only if that information helps me figure out a solution and prevent it from happening again.

I take this strategy whenever I’m leading any team. I consider being a leader to be a function of “state” only: “I am the leader”, “my project team”, I get the respect and recognition for this. But if the team succeeds, that is an “action”: they did the work and so they get the glory. On the other hand, if the team does not succeed, that is again a “state” - this time of bad leadership - I take responsibility for the failure and therefore am responsible for fixing it.

In owning the problem, I inherently give myself the agency to solve it.


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