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The Fish Smells from the Head

The expression comes from the Hebrew: Ha dag masriach mi harosh. My father taught it to me when I was a younger man, very unhappy as I was working under a woman who was both not smart and very insecure in her position of power (a typically toxic combination). I’ve since come back to the expression often: the fish smells from the head.

Quite simply it means that the true character of a given leader will permeate down through the culture of their company, family or country. Who the leader is, the culture will become. 

Any parent understands that what mom and dad do will be echoed back to them by their kids. Swear words slipped out, less than mature emotional responses, everything and anything but always and without fail those things you would have preferred they not repeat. We’re even better at seeing this played out in other people’s children. In our child’s school yard, say. It’s only natural we look to the bully’s parents. What’s happening at home that the terrorizing kid is emulating? Or, no less problematic, why are mom and dad not seeing this and stopping it immediately?

Any adult who’s been in the working world enough years understands the value of a good boss. My mother was a manager in the library system at the University of Toronto and told me often of how under strong management the best people got promoted. But under bad management, of course, the opposite was true.

Under a great leader the few bad apples are left to rot in their corners. Sure, there will always remain a few undesirables, but they won’t get much of a voice.

Under the wrong leader, it is exactly those bad apples that rise.

There is nothing funny about what Donald Trump is doing. This much we know. But even his tweeting needs to be taken extremely seriously (the many journalists, artists and thinkers I follow on twitter–my echo chamber–has been ringing the alarm bells for months). As each new tweet, whether about a woman bleeding from her face from a face lift, or yesterday’s retweet of some internet troll … each of these is so easy to laugh at or slough off.

But this is the man at the very top of the most powerful country in the world. No one in the Republican party seems to have the courage or, more importantly, the moral integrity to stand up to him. As such, he is the uncontested head of the fish. And it more than stinks, the violent tendencies of his vengeful, unstable and emotionally immature influence is blazingly dangerous, for the American culture is being changed every day now. 

Jon Mendelsohn