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Newbie cook here, I use stainless steel but it seems to be a paradox on this.

I am using bone-in chicken thighs and a dry lemon-pepper rub that I put on the chicken. Pat it dry/let it cool down etc etc

I know you need to get the pan pretty hot to where water will form a ball on it, then add oil (I use vegetable) then wait for slight whisps of smoke. Then add chicken.

My stove seems to get my pan very hot in even medium heat so maybe that's an issue but I start on medium. Put chicken on skin down, get a pretty good "crackle" from the oil on it.

Here is where problems arise. People talk about leaving chicken/salmon in this position for like 3-5 minutes and I find that if I do that. All of my seasoning will be black and burnt.

How do I balance getting the steel hot enough to prevent sticking/get a good crust, but not burn the spices?

Should I start at medium (which seems more like medium-high) and then drop the temp after the first 30 seconds or so?

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Stoves vary greatly in their heat output. Cooks need to learn how their stove and pans respond together, and learn how to control the heat supplied to the ingredients you are cooking. If your ingredients are burning, the heat is too high. You can achieve a good crust without burning and by using lower heat, it may just take longer. You are correct in that this is a balancing act. It's not necessarily the high heat that keeps your food from sticking. Use lower heat, and enough oil to coat the pan. Don't move your chicken until a crust forms. It it is smoking or browning too quickly, turn the heat down, and/or remove the pan from the burner.

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