Why Moderation Is Essential to Strong Leadership

Why Moderation Is Essential to Strong Leadership

Quinn McDowell 5 min read

Warm Up

The word “moderate” hardly evokes sentiments of strong leadership. Yet, I believe that a direct correlation exists between a leader’s moderation and their capacity to lead with distinction. In an age where polarization has become the norm in important areas of life like politics, morality, social issues, sports etc.,“moderates” have been marginalized.

Put succinctly, moderation is essential to great leadership because the strongest leaders understand that moderation is not just about finding a “middle-ground.” It’s not simply discovering the equidistant point between two competing extremes.

Instead, the moderate leader develops the skill to deftly navigate the inevitable complexity of leadership without becoming overwhelmed by the challenges of the moment. This “moderate” approach gives their team the stability, strength, and steadfastness that they will need in times of challenge.


It can be tempting to reduce leadership to set of equations that we hope will produce a reliable and repeatable set of outcomes. Unfortunately, life is messy, people are unpredictable, the challenges of leadership are constantly evolving.

Anyone who has participated in team-sports, knows how difficult the process of building a team can be. Clashing personalities and competing agendas contribute to the intricately complex web of getting everyone on the same page.

The moderate leader views the world through a specific lens that allows them to embrace the messiness and uncertainty that leadership will bring. Moderate leaders strive to find a series of balances and proportions while staying true to their convictions.

As author David Brooks says,

“Moderation is based on an awareness of the inevitability of conflict. If you think that the world can fit neatly together, then you don’t need to be moderate.”

Leaders that embrace moderation learn to develop the discipline to be passionate about their goals, but cool-headed in the realization of those goals. In that sense, moderation helps us become more dynamic leaders in two very distinct ways.

Moderate leaders embrace complexity

Wise leaders understand that the only thing you can be certain of is uncertainty. Regardless of how much we plan, strategize, or prepare, life (and leadership) is going to hit us with unexpected curveballs.

Moderation helps us to adeptly navigate complexity because the moderate leader believes that the world is not built like a jigsaw puzzle—which is to say that the pieces of team-building rarely fit together perfectly.

David Brooks again,

"Moderation is based on the idea that things do not fit neatly together. Politics is likely to be a competition between legitimate opposing interests. Philosophy is likely to be a tension between competing half-truths. A personality is likely to be a battleground of valuable but incompatible traits."

The more completely we wrap our arms around the complexity of leadership, the more effective we will be as leaders in the long-term. No longer will our leadership be controlled by the emotional roller-coaster of unexpected challenges, but instead we will be characterized by a steady resolve and unwavering certainty that give our teams the stability they need in times of trouble.

Moderate leaders manage tension

The moderate leader embraces the belief that there are rarely ultimate solutions to the challenges of leadership. The moderate leader is in constant pursuit of constructing temporary arrangements that fit their team’s particular needs of the moment. Priority is placed on managing the tension, rather than solving the problem.

For example, think about star NBA player James Harden and the growth he has shown as a leader this past season. Harden had what many would consider an MVP caliber season not only because of his personal statistics, but more importantly how he helped his team outperform expectations. For the the majority of his career, Harden’s incredible talent failed to elevate his teammates level of play.

This is the perfect example of how a leader that embraces moderation can manage the tension between two competing half-truths. Harden is an incredible offensive talent AND his team needs those abilities to be successful. But in order for his team to succeed he needed to leverage his skill for the good of the group so that his goals and his team’s goals were aligned.

Harden’s talent was never a problem to be solved, but rather a tension that needed to be massaged. Newly appointed head-coach Mike D’Antoni did a masterful job (at least until Game 6 of the Western Conference Semifinals) of not trying to “solve” the problem of Harden’s selfishness, but helping his star player maximize his abilities for the good of the group.


Moderation is essential to strong leadership because strong leaders are able to unify the ever-shifting tectonic plates of competing personalities, interests, and half-truths that make up their team. In unity there is strength, and moderation is essential to managing the complexity and inevitable tensions within your team or organization.

Exercise: Identify one example of a competing half-truth or tension within your team.

Answer the following two questions to help you navigate that situation:

1.How can this situation be managed for the collective good of the group?

2.How can I exercise moderation that effectively embraces the complexity of my team?