Editor's Note: This article is part of a series that looks at the top 10 traits exemplified by Inc. 500 entrepreneurs. 

Gallup says entrepreneurs who are independent depend on themselves to get the job done, can handle multiple tasks successfully, and have a strong sense of responsibility.

David Walsh graduated from high school with a couple of Division 1 football scholarships. Instead, he enrolled in the Naval Academy. "From that time on, it became a motto," says Walsh. "If you are at a crossroads, take the more interesting option: the one that may seem harder. It's made all the difference in my life."

After the Naval Academy, Walsh trained as an intelligence officer, serving in Japan for two years after swapping posts with a newly engaged friend who wanted to remain stateside with his fiancée. Following Japan, Walsh volunteered for what is called a "hard-to-fill billet: the position nobody wants," says Walsh. Walsh went into training with the CIA and soon found himself deep in intelligence operations in the Middle East. In Afghanistan, he led a two-man team training Afghan Special Forces. At age 26, he was the sole U.S. representative in a room with 25 Somalis negotiating counter-piracy policy.

"That whole world you live in is called 'alone and unafraid,'" says Walsh. "You are operating by yourself all over the globe and have to be prepared for every contingency. But you have a big support network between DC and some of the forward bases."

That philosophy has shaped how Walsh leads Prescient Edge, a security integration and technology development business in McLean, Virginia. The company isn't autocratic, but Walsh is also wary of consensus cultures that can drive bureaucracy or stifle growth. So he gives employees plenty of room to navigate and erects "right and left parameters" around their actions.

Being prepared to operate on your own in any situation requires versatility, so Walsh looks for that trait in every job candidate who walks thought the door. Above all, he requires it of himself. Walsh doesn't need to be the top expert in everything, particularly now that the company is expanding into product innovation--for example, taking resins that were discovered by the government and turning them into fibers to create fireproof textiles. But he prepares for important decisions "much as I would prepare for going into a country alone," he says. "If we are going to spend real corporate dollars on a business offering, I have to have learned enough to know what right looks like.

"I don't think anyone can lead who doesn't have an independent streak," says Walsh. "Because to create real value, you have to walk into uncharted territory."