The Fish Rots from the Head

Posted on October. 13. 2019

“The supreme quality
of leadership is integrity.”
Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower
(1890-1969)

By Z. S. Andrew Demirdjian

“The fish rots from the head down” idiom (aka proverb) is being employed more often nowadays in the language of political discourse. So, let us briefly explore its origins and meaning before we show its relevance to the main subject of our discussion about the status quo of the Armenian Orthodox Church. Arguably, the existing state of affairs, especially regarding the ecclesiastical hierarchical issues and leadership, are becoming of deep concern to a large number of the followers of the Church.

Please note, “The fish rots from the head” is more frequently stated as compared to “The fish rots from the head down” without compromising its original meaning.
As you may have guessed, from a biological perspective, this idiom is simply not true. As is the same with all animals, after death a fish will start to decompose everywhere at almost the same rate of rotting. A previous injury or the intestinal system would usually begin to decay first, but not the head. Therefore, this expression was used in a metaphorical sense ever since it first appeared in the written records of the civilized world.
In the early part of the 16th century, the famous Dutch humorist and scholar, Desiderius Erasmus, mentions it in one of his works. However, this does not tell us who actually coined it first. So, the debate continues as many countries of the world lay claim to it. Unfortunately, there is no real evidence to determine as from which country it originated. Some believe that the most likely region from which it comes is around the Aegean Sea. The assumption is that it could be either from the Turks, or the Armenians, or the Greeks.
Most likely, the proverb comes from the Armenians because the nomadic Turks in Central Asia lacked a large body of water like the Black Sea or the Caspian Sea. So, they lacked proverbs about fish. Furthermore, the Turks not only stole Armenian lands, they have also borrowed their culture and wisdom without giving them any credit at all.
Armenians are known to have a fish proverb which asks: “What news from the sea?” The fish replied “I have a lot to say, but my mouth is full of water.” Essentially, this saying is rather implying that under the rule of the Ottomans, there is no freedom of speech. At any rate, it does not exactly carry the message of “the fish rots from the head” idiom.


Some attribute the idiom to the Turks because of Sir James Porter, the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire for 15 years and a Turcophile par excellence. In his 1768 book titled Observations on the religion, Law, Government, and Manners of the Turks, Porter mentions this proverb as being of Turkish origin. Whether the Turks actually came up with it, or if they adopted it from the Greeks or Armenians, seems to defy efforts to find out.
Supposedly, the Turks have a national proverb applied on such occasions by saying “The fish stinks first at the head”, meaning that if the servant is disorderly, it is because the master is so.” Or ” If a servant was acting in an undisciplined manner, it implied that his master was too”. Despite its origin being beyond our ken, we know that they meant it similarly to express the same idea as we do it today by stating “The fish rots from the head”.
Presently, the expression the fish rots from the head is most often used for companies, government agencies, and social organizations as being mismanaged or corrupt by its leaders. It can easily be applied to individuals as well.


As you are aware by now, after so many eye-opening editorials have been cogently written by Mr. Appo Jabarian, the Publisher and Managing Editor, and appeared in the USA Armenian Life and in its sister publication in Armenian (Hye Kiank), it has become obvious that the Armenian Orthodox Church is in turmoil. The controversies do not stem from inconsistencies in the canons or traditions of the Church, but rather how it is being managed and as to the nature of those at the helm. The problems pertain to the character and personalities of certain clergymen from the Holy Etchmiadzin down to its dioceses in the Diaspora.
For example, His Holiness Karekin II, the Catholicos of All Armenians; Archbishop Hovnan Derderian, primate of Western Diocese; and Archbishop Yezras Nersisyan, primate of Russia Diocese all have allegedly abused their power to enhance their personal situation or lot. Reportedly, the range of misconduct runs from breaking of celibacy vows to engaging in activities for personal gains. In other words, they are accused of absence of spiritualism, mismanagement, lack of transparency, and venality including debauchery.
According to leadership experts, the single most important tenet of exemplary leadership is to “model the way”. In other words, being an exemplary leader means being an exemplary “role model” for your followers.
What this means, leaders should be consistently demonstrating a set of behaviors and skills that set an example for the others to emulate. Mahatma Gandhi explained it this way: “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him…We need not wait to see what others do.” Hence, as leaders, when we are not getting the behaviors and actions we want, especially when we have a set of written values to guide those behaviors and actions, then it is time to introspect, to look in the mirror and hold ourselves accountable.
If our Church has become dysfunctional on account of certain clergymen, all reform agendas face the same problem. That is to say, someone needs to implement the reform, and this someone needs to be more powerful than the entrenched individuals that need reform. So, if the fish rots from the tail, and members of the church can fix things, then reformist activists have an easy time. However, it becomes rather problematic if the fish rots from the head. Namely, if the problem is the religious leaders themselves, then there is no higher power that can easily remove the dysfunctional member(s) of the Church.
The animal analogy for this is that the fish rots from the head down also means that the worst abuses come from the top of the hierarchy. The Armenian Church issue is a leadership failure of epic proportion. Ultimately, a bad leader will cause an organization to deteriorate. It is related to a leadership style and culture that, until now, was the source of Armenian incredible pride and success.
Ego-driven leadership is eroding the credibility of the Church. The top determines the nature and extent of the content. Therefore, if the leader is venal, then the church organization will follow suit and wallow in corruption. There must be clergymen willing to comply with the dictatorial aims, the venality, or the toxicity for their own purposes. They may operate this way out of fear, or favor, or simply because they subscribe to the same views and approach and want to enhance their own material position.
There is also another factor to consider other than leader related: the organizational structure and spread. Research shows that the size of a system seems to be inversely related to its enacted intelligence. The bigger the system, the less collective intelligence we tend to recognize. Today, across all major global systems we collectively create research results
that no one wants to heed. For example, the plastic plague: “In 2020 there will be more plastic bottles in the ocean than fish”. Such intelligence about the environmental degradation is not heeded by most countries of the world because of the remoteness from centers of urban living. By the same token, our Holy Etchmiadzin does not always know what is going on, say in the Western United States Diocese. After all, His Holiness Karekin II is the catholicos (i.e., the “general”, the leader) of all Armenians who are scattered over the four corners of the Earth. Regardless of the sharing of intelligence, when an organization fails, it is the leadership that is the root cause.
There are a number of reasons as to why this occurs. Leaders get distracted by other priorities. They become lazy and switch into a maintenance mode rather than becoming vigilant about what is happening in other dioceses. Or they simply turn a blind eye to the misconduct of their subordinates because they themselves are engaged in the same kind of shenanigan or corruption. Sometimes, leaders do not discipline other clergymen for fear of getting attention to their own mismanagement. In this way, they prefer to retreat from their primary mission and find solace and protection into not rocking the boat mode. Church leadership is about how we behave, communicate, and manage subordinates.
Many churches decline and even fail because of ego-centered leadership.
In his doctoral dissertation study on “why churches fail,” Dr. Richard J. Krejicir tracked over 1,000 churches for over 10 years. Mind you this is a rare longitudinal study. Although this type of study is time-consuming, but it produces higher validity of results. He looked for the marks that caused people to leave. He found four major reasons as to why a churchgoer leaves his or her church in dissatisfaction: 1. Over 91 percent cited the significant reason being conflict and gossip. Well, do we have conflict and gossip in our Armenian Church now? You be the judge. 2. Over 78 percent who left a church stated they experienced church people being judgmental to them, the hypocrisy they witnessed especially by the pastors and leadership. Let us see, do we have hypocrisy in our Armenian Church right now? Did you say, tons of it?! 3. Over 62 percent of those who left a church because they experienced a lack of hospitality and concern or care from the leadership or people in general. Here we go again, are the Armenian worshipers experiencing a warm welcome or empathetic care by their church leaders? You’d say “yes,” if you were an oligarch. 4. Over 62 percent said they left a church because of the unwillingness to deal with sin. This creates strife and factions in a church for which people reported to be the reason they left. The atmosphere of contention was the primary basis for factions, dissatisfaction, disagreement, and dissention between the people and the leadership. Well, well, do we have dissatisfaction, disagreement, and dissention within our Armenian churchgoers and their church leadership? Do we have sinners? If you say “no,” then you have not been reading the informative, eye-opening mindboggling and groundbreaking editorials in the USA Armenian Life lately.
There have been a plethora of examples of leaders who have fallen out of the grace of their congregation when they live double lives and their integrity is not consistent in every area of their lives. Often leaders who have fallen because of their personal life were not consistent with their professional life. Unequivocally, leaders have to maintain credibility with the churchgoers they lead by doing what they preach.
The success of any church, including the Armenian Orthodox Church, should be built on the trust of its congregants and general public. One of the best ways to gain that trust is to demonstrate ethics and integrity in church operations, not out of legal considerations, but because it is the right thing to do. Thus, incorporating ethics and integrity into the core fabric of the church is imperative and must become part of the culture. The code of conduct should be building integrity into the culture of the church is the foundation for ethical practice. Churches that strive to do the right thing thrive by establishing a reputation for high ethical standards. It starts at the top and flows down throughout the entire church organization. The result is extremely rewarding as Mark Twain alerts us: “Do the right thing. It will gratify some people and astonish the rest.”
The idiom fish rots from the head means that if the person in charge does a bad job, in our case both spiritually and morally, it will have negative implications for everyone working under him or her and will eventually alienate the congregation. As you well know, a series of conquerors have compromised the nature of the Armenian Highlands. Our Homeland has been reduced to the size of a postage stamp, our population in the Homeland has dwindled to negligible numbers, and now the Armenian nation is becoming nauseated by a “school” of fish that are rotting from the head down!
The Armenian community must come together to stop the “stinking odor” which is permeating the Armenian nation’s most holy sites both in Armenia and in the Diaspora. Let us not forget, all of the Armenian Orthodox Church members have a vested interested in corralling these religious sites away from the unholy hands, safeguarding the image, the reputation, and the future of their proud Church that became the first state religion of the Armenian nation. Since the fateful year of 301 A.D., Armenian nation’s unyielding pride and rare treasure have survived many calamities throughout the centuries in a sea of radically alternative approaches to the traditional Western culture. It is up to you and me now to preserve the integrity of our precious legacy left to us by our resilient forefathers.

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