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The Myth of Normal By Dr. Mark L. Vincent

What We Need to Know About Normal and Disciplined Thinking

We can’t return to a new normal if we never left itIf leaders can (re)learn anything on this side of Pandemic Time, as Palestinians and Israelis murder each other, the threat of another war in Kosovo, and yet another deadly earthquake in Afghanistan, it is that the proverbial house we build is always falling. And let’s not forget that the 2023 hurricane season has two months to go…

After navigating through profound difficulty, leaders are foolish to step back and say, “There, that’s done,” or “Whew! That’s over!”

  • Tragic moments are not unprecedented and will happen again in our lifetimes and the future.
  • There is not a return to normal after such events, and there is not an emerging normal that follows.

The Deception of Normal

Normal is a myth when defined as an absence of devastating problems and a continuous, unthreatened good life. Death, dying, pestilence, famine, war, and physical suffering are the norm. Abnormal is to live without them as not one of us escapes this life completely unscathed.

Normal is the demand to minimize, reduce, and limit tragic effects, creating spaces to rest and prepare for the next round of striving against them, ensuring our selfish responses do not harm our descendants. Our descendants should be lifted by our preceding courageous service so that they, too, courageously serve those who live after them.

Before COVID, our economy gave some of us a bit of a vacation from the tragic normal, and we largely squandered the time. When suffering came roaring back, we added to the deaths by consuming more potent opioids, meth, and fentanyl, taking our own lives, increasing our traffic deaths, and doing a lot of screaming and sometimes shooting across perceived cultural and political divides.

Maybe some of the dust of the past few years is settling now. Perhaps we are ready to reengage in the real work of building a purposeful and civic-minded community.

The Great Confrontation

When confronted with something unprecedented in our experience, it is a best practice habit to follow a disciplined progression of thought as soon as possible. In other words, we rush immediately to take that deep breath and gather perspective before responding. Learning this discipline and applying it consistently in more minor matters makes this skill available during moments of triage in the face of tragedy.

Our Question Set

  • What happened? What do we think it means to us?
  • When others have faced something similar, what wisdom did they leave for us?
  • What are the implications for our turn at this? How do our mission, vision, and values guide us?

Our responses to these questions provide additional and quickly gained wisdom (informed perspective) to accompany the information (current and trending data) that is becoming new knowledge. Combining learning and information breeds deep and wide perception in responding to a fourth question.

  • What will we do next, and after that, and toward what end?

When reacting, we go right to question four, bypassing the first three. When we do, we fail to lead. We choose to manage crises with our blinders on.

Discipline of Thinking

My preaching professors taught me this discipline of thinking quickly and thoroughly before responding. Those of us in my classes learned this discipline to interpret the scriptural text, analyze the times and culture around us, and then think forward to meaning and application. We addressed the last question once we completed the earlier ones. This disciplined thought process informed nearly forty years of my working life — thinking deeply, yet quickly, to:

  • Guide an extended faith family facing the critical issues of its day.
  • Inform my parenting and family life decisions — raising children, shepherding a family through long years of the physical suffering of my first wife, and then deciding to marry again and blend an even more prominent family.
  • Shape my approach to building an enterprise for the long term and with succession and legacy in mind.
  • Walk with numerous Clients as they build their organizations for the long term, with succession and legacy in mind.

Across the years, this thoughtful triage before responding helped my leadership while living through:

  • Stagflation
  • A sudden increase of troubled latch-key children on the streets in the urban parish where I lived and served
  • Greater societal permission to engage with vices and the problems they bring to the homes of clients, colleagues, vendors, competitors, family members, and neighbors
  • 9/11
  • multi-faceted and complex mergers/acquisitions
  • capital fundraising efforts gone awry
  • recessions, especially 2008-2009
  • death and departure of business partners

Leaders get thrust into multiple difficult moments. This, too, is normal and should be expected and prepared for. As a discipline, thinking helps us describe a desired future state to rally resources and people toward a mission. With a well-defined future state, we can more quickly define resources, roles, actions, and objectives as external reference points everyone can see so that something new and helpful can happen.

Benefits of Disciplined Thinking

[1] Thinking, as a discipline, helps the leader with the constant communication cadence of:

THERE is where we were,

Here is where we are, and

This is where we are going.

[2] As a discipline, thinking helps the leader surface, redirect, and even incorporate dissent. Suppose someone wishes to be an enemy against triage and response. In that case, they are far less able to do so from a hidden place because the objectives are visible and are regularly communicated. It is challenging to be hateful or act hatefully when offered dignity, respect, and an opportunity to help shape a response.

[3] Leaders who develop this discipline of thought save time. Fools rush in and become far more wasteful, mainly because they fail to formulate clear objectives and then marshal efficient use of resources for a critical response.

Disciplined thinking is part of the high art of leadership. It requires fortitude not to rush in but to turn one’s strength toward building from a foundation when it seems the house is falling. The house is always falling. It’s normal.


Dr. Mark L. Vincent is the Founder of Design Group International and the Society for Process Consulting. He hosts the Third Turn Podcast and facilitates Maestro-level leaders.

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