Do You Have a Dead Fish in Your Drawer?

While in college, my roommates and I had a couch on the front porch of our house. In the afternoons after class, you’d often find us sitting outside not studying, not reading, and generally being un-studious.

One day we started to notice a smell. Being that we lived in Waco, where the average temperature is “holy crap I can’t believe it’s this hot,” we just thought it was trash or something wafting our way from the apartment complex across the street.

It took us about a week, but we finally realized that someone had pulled an awful prank on us. Someone had put a dead fish under one of the cushions of our beloved couch on the front porch.

What does that have to do with leadership and personal development? Read on and let’s find out!

Dead fish in your drawer

In his book Boundaries for Leaders, Dr. Henry Cloud tells the story of the dead fish in the drawer. The idea behind the dead fish is that there may be something in your life you’ve stuck in a drawer because it smelled too bad to have out.

Whether we realize it or not, many of us may have a dead fish sitting in one of our drawers.

When consulting with one of his clients, Dr. Cloud came across a team who dubbed an issue the “dead fish in the drawer.” An issue that stunk so bad, it was put in a drawer and left there because no one wanted to pull it out and talk about it.

One of the guys on the team, Jerry, had a temper. Any time someone brought up a topic that Jerry didn’t agree with, Jerry would throw a fit until he got his way. He’d pull the seniority card and reject any and all change.

Instead of dealing with the problem head on, the team said Jerry’s problem smelled too bad to bring out for examination.

Is there something in your life that you’re afraid to talk about?

Is there something that’s so painful or sensitive you leave it hidden away?

The problem with leaving the dead fish (your problem) in the drawer is that it doesn’t go away.

If you don’t take it out, you can’t address it. If you can’t address it, you can’t fix it. And if you can’t fix it, you can never move forward.

To fix the problem, you have to do a few things.

You have to acknowledge that the problem exists.

Just because you locked the problem away, or decided to ignore it, doesn’t mean the issue doesn’t exist.

Like the fish hiding under our couch cushion, your problem will get worse by not addressing it head on. You have to pull every cushion until you find the cause.

When working with your team, you must have the hard conversations until you find out what caused the issue in the first place.

You have to tackle the real issue.

We tried everything, my roommates and I. We stayed inside, we hung out on the back porch instead of the front, and we even closed all of the windows to try to keep the smell at bay.

Febreze didn’t solve the problem because it didn’t take care of the real issue.

But it wasn’t until we realized the problem wasn’t the apartment complex across the street that we could begin to make things better. We had to get the fish out and dispose of it.

The team in Dr. Cloud’s story couldn’t begin to move their business forward until they addressed Jerry’s temper head on.

So how does the dead fish get in your drawer?

You get a dead fish when there are known issues that nobody wants to address. The issue gets pushed to the side and left there until it gets so bad that nobody wants to touch it.

How do you prevent issues from getting so bad?

Small issues left un-addressed can get out of control fast. Whatever position you hold on your team, don’t let an issue turn into a dead fish! Talk about what’s bothering you. If you’ve created a climate of trust, where you and everyone on your team has the best interest of the team in mind, you should be able to talk about the challenges you’re seeing.

Man, after we got rid of that fish the whole neighborhood smelled better! No longer did we have to hold our breath walking up the stairs into the house.

When you get to the source of a problem, and face it head on, things will go much smoother for you. Though it may be difficult to talk about what is bothering you or causing friction on your team, you have to do it.

That’s what leaders do, they face their fears and tackle the challenges that are preventing the team from reaching their goals.

Question: How do you deal with issues? If you have dead fish in your drawer (or under a couch cushion) click the blue voicemail on the right of your screen and leave me a message!


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  • Dan Erickson

    I think most everybody gas a dead fish or two in their drawer. My way of dealing with these issues is to write about them. Some of that writing may stay in my journal and never be shared, and some may, in time, be shared. Either way, it’s a helpful process.

    • Ellory Wells

      Dan, you may be right about everyone having a dead fish stuck in a drawer. Do you think you can live life without one? Do you think it’s possible to get them all out?

      • Dan Erickson

        Tough questions: I tend to be suspicious of anyone who seems to be too perfect or squeaky clean. We might be able to give them all up to God, but we’re still human.

  • rcsinclair952

    We teach kids the Emperor’s New Clothes. But we continue to have Skeltons in the Closet, or Elephants in the room!! Admitting there is a problem is the first step in recovery.

    Ok. I will admit it!!!

    The Emperor has no clothes!!

  • Charmaine

    Love this article! I tend to withdraw from situations because I fear not being accepted. My drawers were full of dead fish and man did it stink! Over the past few years I’ve had to open a drawer and tackle a fish. It’s been an enlightening experience and helps me grow in so many ways.
    Thank you for the article. I realize I need to get rid of a dead fish this week.

    • Ellory Wells


      Thank you for commenting and sharing with me! I think you may agree, just because we leave the fish in the drawer doesn’t mean the smell goes away.

      Best of luck to you in facing your problem head on! Let me know how it goes.