Why Strong Leaders Dare To Be “Average”

Dr. Michael O’Brien
As easy as it is to stray to the curb, sometimes leading form the middle of the road is a good thing.

When’s the last time you used the word “average” or “moderate” to describe yourself? If you’re like me, probably never. If the idea of moderation feels foreign, that’s because it quite simply is. Even still, it’s one of the most useful and important concepts for leaders to master.

When’s the last time you used the word “average” or “moderate” to describe yourself? If you’re like me, probably never. That might have been a bit of a trick question. (Who would actually call themselves “moderate?” Probably no one.) But even still, think about it for a moment. Try it on for size. The way you approach your job, your relationships, your hobbies – would it be fair to call you moderate?

If that felt weird, there’s a reason for it. When’s the last time you called anything moderate? The truth is, the middle of the road is pretty hard to remember. Passion, on the other hand, elicits emotion, so polarizing voices cut through the noise, and are far more memorable than moderation.

Key point: So when the idea of moderation feels foreign, that’s because it quite simply is. Even still, it’s one of the most useful and important concepts for leaders to master.

But don’t take my word for it, you’ve heard it before. Did your parents ever tell your young self, “everything in moderation,” when you asked why you couldn’t upgrade to the extra-large sundae? OK, at that point in time you had no choice but to take their word for it either. But the fact of the matter is, there’s actually science that backs them up.

more than a mindset

Moderation is actually an essential component of our biological well-being. Think about what it takes to run a great meeting. It’s a special cocktail of hormones that allow you to be alert, assertive, and think critically about the group’s ideas. Without those chemicals, you’d appear sluggish and nonchalant. At the same time, too many of those hormones would make you fidgety and belligerent. Without biological moderation, we wouldn’t be able to accomplish anything.

Moderation is at work behind the scenes when regulating our behavior as well. While we can enjoy a little bit of a good thing (eating just one cheeseburger, or hearing a bad pun), we eventually hit a point where that is no longer enjoyable. Psychology Today aptly describes this phenomenon as the “inverted ‘U’ effect.”

“We have a ‘more is better’ algorithm built in,” Glenn Geher, a psychologist at SUNY New Paltz, told Psychology today. “Many substances or stimuli are beneficial in certain amounts, but then reach a tipping point after which they become harmful.”

Not only is moderation’s role in our healthy biology and behavior impossible to overstate, but it is actually a critical characteristic of well-led organizations.

The most important leadership traits lie in a state of moderation, not excess.
The most important leadership traits lie in a state of moderation, not excess.

moderation in leadership

The reason moderation is so difficult to achieve is precisely why it’s so important. Moderation means prioritizing long-term success over short-term gratification — actually refusing an immediate gain in favor of a potential future benefit. That’s a sticky trap for organizations, especially those undergoing change.

Think back to that inverted “U” for a moment. When it comes to its achievement orientation, a team must sit just at that graph’s peak. Too much focus on near-term recognition and success manifests itself as impulsiveness. Plagued by pivots and lacking the anchor of a long-term vision, these teams bury themselves in tasks. The danger, is with all the focus on achieving short-term goals this kind of frictionless culture can be difficult to diagnose, since everyone feels as if they’re doing the right things.

On the other end of the spectrum are organizations that eschew achievement and recognition altogether. For leaders who have seen team after team get mired in shortsighted achievement orientation, this can be a tempting culture to embrace. However, by ignoring urgent market shifts or technological changes, these teams find themselves unable to shift their focus even when necessary. And again, this style is self-perpetuating. Without any short-term feedback, there’s no way for leadership to recognize its shortcomings and pick up on opportunities that require agile change.

A second key point: Therefore, the most successful organizations are moderate in their achievement orientation. Their leadership understands the needs for an agile feedback system, but does not reward short-term success so heavily that it shrouds the team’s long-term vision. We’ve evolved to see things as “black & white” but nuanced assessments, while mentally taxing, are often far more useful.

As you set out to realize this leadership style, it’s important you remember that it’s not easy. Think back to the beginning of this article: Most things in our lives are not practiced in moderation, so steering an organization to this hallowed middle-ground may not feel natural. But the ‘rare earth’ to which the path of moderation leads you will be well worth the effort.

What is really difficult is to be moderate in everything we do.
What is really difficult is to be moderate in everything we do.