The Flea Circus Analogy
Updated: Jun 25, 2019
By Chuck Cusumano and Jillian Broaddus
What do flea circuses and leadership development have in common? As it turns out, quite a lot – perhaps even more than the clichéd circus/ringleader analogies!
Nowadays more of a euphemism than anything else, “flea circuses” actually refer to a common circus sideshow attraction in which fleas are the performers. These fleas are placed on props, where they are trained to rotate Ferris wheels, or appear to play miniature musical instruments, or perform a variety of other small-scale tasks. However, how are these creatures – which can naturally leap over 200 times their body height and innately use this ability to sustain life by jumping from host to host – trained to stay put?
“Even when fleas are given access to open air, they will never again jump to their full capacity. The same thing happens in organizations, at all leadership levels.”
The answer is simple, and has mirrored repercussions in human development, as well: repeated suppression.
The fleas are conditioned by being put in a stunted glass container, with a tightly-sealed lid. When the fleas jump, they inevitably hit their heads repeatedly until, by natural selection, the only fleas that remain will learn to stay grounded. Furthermore, even when the fleas are eventually given access to open air, they will never again jump to their full capacity.
The same thing happens in organizations big and small, and at all leadership levels.
When leaders are reluctant to listen to a new suggestion of how to do things that have always been done the same way, they are putting on the lid.
When leaders micromanage the tasks of their contributors, they are putting on the lid.
When leaders refuse to allow their employees to take risks – and ultimately, refuse to allow their employees to fail – they are putting on the lid.
And when leaders inhibit creativity in any capacity, they are putting on the lid.
(Note that the tightening of this lid may not be done maliciously, or may not even be intentional – in fact, most often, it’s not! Leaders often think they’re doing the right thing by “not rocking the boat,” or by keeping their direct reports on a safe and steady path, without realizing the long-term impact on the thinking of their employees!)
Subtle stifling of innovation, risk-taking, and fearlessness will leave leaders to find themselves with a jar of fleas. However, only when they let – quite literally – the sky be the limit, they’ll get to see how high their employees may soar.