One tale told about flea circus owners in the 1800s is that they trained fleas to limit their jumping height by keeping them in a jar for extended periods of time, writes Jim Haudan, but leaders need to help employees realize “that they can jump as high as they want.” Giving them the freedom to craft their jobs into positions that challenge them to grow will allow them “to remove the lid on their own mind,” Haudan writes.



Have you heard of a flea circus? Well believe it or not, in the mid to late 1800s, the flea circus was a popular attraction, particularly in England and Germany, although some of the most successful ones toured as far as the United States and Canada!


A Little Bit of History

These shows began as a way for watchmakers and jewelers to show off their handiwork. These artisans would create miniature objects – such as chariots – for fleas to pull and manipulate.

Famed showman Louis Bertolotto’s flea circus, touted as an “extraordinary exhibition of industrious fleas,” was the hottest ticket throughout London during the 1830s. He and his troupe of tiny performers enjoyed a successful career, delighting crowds across continents for more than 50 years.

So what do fleas that were outfitted with mini props in the 1800s have to do with leaders and employees in the 2020s?


What Job Crafting & the Flea Circus Have in Common

Fleas are exceptional jumpers. Thanks to elastic cuticles made of resilin in their legs, these little creatures can jump, and jump high. To keep them contained, folks like Bertolotto would keep them in a glass jar with a lid screwed on tight. Once contained in the jar, the fleas would jump and jump, continuously bumping their heads.

Eventually the fleas would stop jumping so high. After all, repeatedly hitting your head isn’t fun for anyone. After time, the “trainers” could take the lid off and the fleas would no longer jump high enough to escape the jar. They had learned to avoid hitting their heads by minimizing their jumps. I relate this to the concept of job crafting.