09/28/2012 01:48 pm ET Updated Nov 28, 2012

Leadership Is a Walk in the Dark

Michael Harvey is an associate professor and chair of the Department of Business Management at Washington College. His work and research focuses on how leaders communicate. Harvey has published numerous articles on the literary approaches to leadership. He spoke with Tom Fox, who writes the Washington Post's Federal Coach blog and is the director of the Partnership for Public Service's Center for Government Leadership.

What is your concept of leadership?

Leadership is a walk in the dark. Leaders are expected to chart a course into the future and get people there. History can provide partial lessons, but an indispensable quality is to be able to figure out what the right decision is for the time. You can plan, budget, and follow procedure and protocol, but where the leader earns his or her paycheck is in new territory. Ultimately, that takes imagination.

How can leaders develop that imagination of leadership?

The clash between structure and innovation is endemic to all leadership. Even the most charismatic leaders' face the same dilemma--over time, things become routine and habitual. That's good in a lot of ways. Bureaucracy is the most efficient way we've devised to organize large groups. But like every solution, there are down sides. Leaders need to be aware of that. You've always got to be asking why and wondering if there is a different way of doing something.

What characteristics stand out among the best and most successful leaders?

Leaders can have an impact if they can communicate with people. If you have brilliant ideas but you can't share them or you can't make people believe them, then you're not going to be a leader. Two things matter a lot: simplicity and focus. One of my students said, "Leaders think in shades of gray, but they have to speak and write in black and white," and they can do this best by employing active, simple speech.

The other important aspect is focus. Leaders can talk about themselves, but they need to have the intuitive understanding to speak about others. As Bear Bryant, the legendary Alabama football coach, said, "If anything goes bad, I did it. If anything goes semi-good, we did it. If anything goes really good, you did it. That's all it takes to get people to win football games for you."

In the context of great American political and military leadership, Dwight Eisenhower after ordering the D-Day invasion to proceed had to wait 24 hours for it to begin. During that time he wrote out a message that would be released to the press if the invasion was a failure. In his first draft he wrote, "The troops have been withdrawn," but then he crossed that out and wrote, "I have withdrawn the troops." Eisenhower, a great communicator, knew that he ought to speak in a way that took responsibility for the failure.

What are the top qualities of a great federal leader?

First, you have to understand your part in the bureaucracy. No action occurs in isolation. Leaders also need to be critical thinkers. They should have a practice of asking "why" five times. This is one of the fundamental management practices at Toyota--a persistent habit of critical thinking. Each time you ask, you dig a little deeper.

They should have strategic vision. What worked yesterday may not work tomorrow. And leaders need strategic persistence. Know where you're trying to go, and keep at it. As you adapt and improvise, don't get distracted from the big goal. Don't be scared of being ambitious. Model yourself on great leaders and aim for greatness yourself. When you see the statues of great leaders carved in white marble, it's easy for them to seem remote. The more you learn about them, the more you realize they were not that different from you.

If Abraham Lincoln could have ambition that was "a little engine that knew no rest," as his biographer William Herndon said, it's okay for you to be ambitious too--but be ambitious, as Lincoln was, in the service of a worthy goal.

Lastly, you need to be able to build relationships and trust. If people don't trust you, especially in a bureaucracy, you'll die of information starvation.

How can federal leaders develop these qualities?

Malcolm Gladwell calls it the 10,000 hour rule. You can get really good at something by just putting in the time. Take courses and choose good leaders to model yourself after. Whatever you choose to study, study it as deeply as you can. Pick a leader who fascinates you and go read deeply about that person. If you dig deep enough, you'll get to a point where you'll see the frustration, anxieties and uncertainties in their life just as in your life.

Who are your leadership role models and what lessons have you taken away from their examples?

One of the leaders I greatly admire is Tecumseh. He had an unbelievable vision. He failed in his dream of uniting Native Americans and carving out an independent sovereign land, but he was as successful as any Native American could have been against the onslaught of the European settlers. It reminds us that not all leadership stories are happy. He did all he could, a mixture of talking, persuasion, force, steadiness and seeking out alliances. Another of my heroes is Kahu, the heroine of Witi Ihimaera's novel The Whale Rider . She's a girl who simply refuses to take 'no' for an answer, and never gives up. Leadership, like life, is hard, and "never give up" is one of the most important lessons.

This post was originally featured on The Washington Post's website.