The Washington Post

Developing leadership principles


Tom Fox is a guest writer of the Washington Post’s Federal Coach blog and vice president for leadership and innovation at the Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.

A friend of mine sometimes uses sailing as a metaphor for leadership. He’s fond of saying that exceptional leaders will identify a true north — their essential leadership principles — to navigate calm or rough waters.

In a world of never-ending challenges and unpredictable events, federal leaders would be wise to spend some time defining the central elements of their leadership approach. You know that the rapids are coming, so you should chart your course carefully right now to help ensure success.

One example of a federal leader with a core set of principles is Elliott Branch, the deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for acquisition and procurement. Branch has been recognized for instituting important management innovations and engaging in a number of major and highly successful negotiations involving guided missile destroyers, surface ships and submarines that saved taxpayers billions of dollars.

Branch recently came to speak to a group of Excellence in Government Fellows, one of the leadership programs I run at the Partnership for Public Service. While our fellows were impressed with his results, it was his leadership principles that made the greatest impression. Branch elaborated on those principles for me and said federal leaders must be:

Intellectually curious: Being a leader is partially about understanding your environment and your place in it. You can’t understand your environment unless you’re willing to understand what comprises it and how it works.

Mentally tough: The world is a complex place. You must be willing to put in the time and effort to understand how things interrelate and what they mean in the grand scheme, especially in a world where what’s going on its not always obvious.

Critical thinkers: Acquire experience and reason to develop insights and understanding. Don’t rely on authority just because it’s authority. Evaluate the world with a critical eye.

Flexible: The universe is full of surprises. Be open to the novelty that is required for dealing with a dynamically changing environment.

Results oriented: No matter how good you are at conceiving and planning, if it doesn’t get done, it doesn’t exist.

Imaginative: If you can’t conceive of the future, you’ll never be able the use the other five qualities to get there.

Branch’s model works for him because he has defined these terms personally and applied them to his job and his needs. These principals may resonate with you, though other leadership characteristics may be more suitable to your situation. As you seek to identify the basic leadership tenets that seem right, you might consider answering a few disarmingly simple questions to help complete the picture. Ask yourself:

· What leaders do I admire? Why?

· In thinking about my leadership, what are my deeply held values?

· What do I stand for as a leader? What’s most important to me?

Like Branch, you should come up with a list of somewhere between five and ten core values. If your list needs refining, ask yourself one more question: Would I follow a leader who lived by these values? If you answer yes, it’s likely your team will too if you put those values into action and stick by them.

What are some of the core principles you believe are essential for successful federal leaders? Share your ideas in the comment section below. You can also email me at

Read also:

Boy Scouts of America and the dismantling of core values

Tom Fox, of the Partnership for Public Service, explores workplace issues and provides advice for federal managers through analysis, interviews and reader Q&As in his Federal Coach blog for On Leadership.



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