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The Definition of Managerial Insanity


“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting the same results.” More and more, I hear that quoted in business as Albert Einstein’s definition of insanity.

He didn’t say it, though. And you don’t have to be an Einstein to see that it’s a poor definition of insanity.

The first written use of it was in 1983 in Rita Mae Brown’s book “Sudden Death.” I haven’t read the book. But I’ve read the summary on Amazon. That makes me more highbrow than the legions of managers who use it to justify questionable decisions while mis-attributing it to Einstein.

How did a Harlequin romance set in the world of pro tennis contribute today’s most hackneyed business cliche?

My guess: a 1980’s middle manager was trolling for a quote for tomorrow’s presentation  by skimming books in the aisle of B. Dalton Booksellers. He picked up “Sudden Death” thinking he’d find a tennis metaphor. Instead, he found this quote and added in Einstein to make it sound authoritative. He thought he had gold, Jerry, pure gold.

It wasn’t gold. Solid pyrite, no more. And there’s a reason they call that “fool’s gold.”

See, first off, it isn’t even a convincing definition of insanity. Years ago I worked in a psychiatric hospital. And a family member, long since departed, suffered from schizophrenia. I’ve seen insanity. Insane people do not do the same thing over and over. They are full of terrifying variety, like the late-period cat paintings of Louis Wain.

Let’s suspend disbelief and common sense for a moment and pretend that it’s a genuinely insightful quote from the brilliant mind of Einstein. Do you look managerially smart when you quote it? Cool. Because give me a year or so to train it, and I can replace you with a parrot trained to spout quotes like “The problem with quotes found on the Internet is that they’re not always accurate” – Abraham Lincoln. Add in a coffee cup and suspenders – instant avian Lumbergh.

It’s good to read. A lot. Thoughtful well-written content from authors and bloggers you respect. But reading’s not enough. You must also blend the information you read with judgement, experience and analysis. That’s called “synthesis.” It’s the thought part of being a thought leader.

“Leaders think, then speak. Parrots repeat. Got it?” – Nelson Mandela

It’s harder than tweeting out quotes, I know. But it has the advantage that Polly-Want-a-Cracker can’t replace you, and also that you’ll be adding genuine value when you speak. If you disagree with me, try to put me in my place with my favorite Theodore Roosevelt quote. But be careful. He admires doers and scorns critics, but he doesn’t see fit to even mention quote-spammers. And he uses his own words. His. Own. Words.

In the title I promised you the definition of managerial insanity. But I won’t give it to you. Because you might just quote it on Twitter and attribute it to Amelia Earhart. So tell me – how do YOU define managerial insanity?

Put your definition in the comments. And attribute it to a random historical, literary, or business person. I’ll tweet out all the definitions I get, and it’ll be fun to see which ones get picked up and retweeted.

  • Dave Jobe

    So I have always loved quotes. This insanity quote has always seemed beyond odd to me. So thanks for setting the record straight Russ. I’ll sleep just a little better tonight now. And thanks for being one of those thinking and sharing guys.