Successful public service in a democracy does not mean the destruction of one’s enemies.

This morning I wrote that solving our nation’s transportation challenges “requires vision—men and women who can develop innovative solutions, and champions who… have the fortitude to see them through.” This afternoon, I want to share with you my thoughts about what it takes to be one of those champions.

I’m a lifelong Republican who served seven terms in Congress. When President Barack Obama called on me to serve in his historic administration, I knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for truly bipartisan public service. Sure, we had our differences. But we shared a passion for public service—and that’s what mattered.

As I close the last chapter in my book of service, I’m taking stock of the Washington I see today. Sadly, I see a town that is increasingly distracted by political sideshows and name-calling, which are hurting its ability to effectively address our most pressing issues.

As a former member of Congress, I get it. Solving our nation’s problems is hard work, and it always has been. Today, it is made even more difficult by constant partisan debate, but the truth is, we can overcome this.

Over the course of my career—17 years as a Capitol Hill aide, 14 years as a congressman, 4 ½ years as the U.S. Secretary of Transportation—I’ve seen my mentors, my colleagues and even my rivals come together and solve big problems. Time and time again, the quality they’ve all shared is leadership.

The funny thing about leadership is that while it’s hard to define, it’s very easy to identify. People know a leader when they see one.Here are a few key qualities I’ve observed in strong leaders:

Successful public service in a democracy does not mean the destruction of one’s enemies. If, in the midst of secession and strife, President Abraham Lincoln could say to his countrymen, “We are not enemies, but friends,” then surely we can do the same today.

There is always going to be another issue and another debate. Our job, as political leaders, is to build the relationships that help us compromise and get things done.

Solving the difficult problems that face our nation has always been hard. It was hard for Lincoln to keep the union together during the Civil War. It was hard for Congress to pass a civil rights bill that ensured equal rights for all Americans. And it was hard for us to balance the budget in the 1990s.

But we did it. And we did it together. We certainly can do it again.

The qualities I’ve laid out may seem less valued in today’s Washington, but that is precisely why they are most important. The next generation is counting on us to do more. Let’s start by being better leaders, being bipartisan and being willing to compromise. iBi

This article was first posted on July 1, 2013 on fastlane.dot.gov, the official blog of the U.S. Secretary of Transportation, and is reprinted with permission.