Lessons from Gulliver’s Travels

Bill Yeargin Correct Craft CEO
Bill Yeargin
By Bill Yeargin

Interested in a classic book that is fun to read and full of leadership lessons? Read (or re-read) Gulliver’s Travels.

Gulliver’s Travels, written by Jonathan Swift, is the first-person account of Lemuel Gulliver, an English surgeon and sea captain who visits remote regions of the world. A brief reminder of Gulliver’s four trips is as follows:

- On his first adventure Gulliver ends up on Lilliput, a captive of tiny people only six inches tall who are at war with another empire over which end of an egg should be broken first when eating it.

- His second adventure is to Brobdingnag where he is a tiny person in a land of giants many times bigger than him. He shares stories about his country of England and the giants are appalled by many things including the idea of gunpowder and, especially, that it would be used to hurt people.

- Gulliver’s third adventure takes him to the flying island of Laputa where the people have interesting perspectives and plenty of what we would consider eccentricities, like extracting sunbeams from cucumbers.

- His fourth and final adventure takes Gulliver to a land of super smart horses, called Houyhnhnms, and not so smart people, called Yahoos.

The book is a fun read and I particularly enjoyed reading the reactions of the people Gulliver met when he shared how people from his home country viewed the world. The people Gulliver visited considered many of the western customs (much of which we still follow today) as absurd and the reader can easily grasp their perspective.

As I recently finished re-reading Gulliver’s Travels, I couldn’t help but think of three big lessons:

- Get out of your comfort zone – I know it is a cliché, but the lessons Gulliver learned were a direct result of him getting out of his comfort zone. My friend Michele Assad, who also happens to be an ex-CIA agent, says “nothing impactful happens in your comfort zone."

- Be a learner – Gulliver’s Travels demonstrates how we can easily view other people’s perspectives as absurd while they simultaneously consider our perspectives just as absurd. Very, very few people seek truth; most people seek validation of what they already believe. I find it interesting during the current COVID-19 crisis to see how different people can look at the same exact data but make it fit into their preexisting narrative of the crisis. The same thing happens in politics where people celebrate something their politician did when they would condemn the same action if done by someone from another party. It is way easier to be a “knower” than a “learner,” but the best leaders are “learners;” they seek truth, not confirmation.

- Pride is powerful and negative - Swift ends the book with a speech by Gulliver decrying pride and the way it blinds people to instruction. Pride is extremely dangerous because it keeps us from being a learner when we really know very little. Several years ago, I read the book “Derailed” by Tim Irwin. In the book Irwin reviewed the careers of several very successful business leaders who lost their way. I remember thinking downfall ALWAYS comes back to pride. Every leader can be more successful by understanding and embracing the importance of humility.

One of the reasons I love reading is that there is so much to learn and learning make us better, much better. Even classic fiction like Gulliver’s Travels can open our minds to the possible and catapult us to new and better ways of thinking.

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