Note to Readers: The more I read and learn about leadership, the more I realize leaders do not need to be flamboyant, brassy, loud, and demonstrative people, but rather humble people, who know right, do right, and lead by example … whether they know it or not. Maybe the "holy grail" is not thinking so much about leadership and just living it.

Dear Dave:  You say anyone can become a leader. Is it really possible? Aren't there people whose traits make them unfit to be a leader? — K

Dear K: Yes, and I am not even going to try to define leadership. Thousands of leadership writers spend more time talking about just what leadership is and far less about what it does, or should not do.

First, let me say that we get all hung up on this whole traits discussion. Leadership writer John Kotter says, “It’s not who or what leaders are; it’s what they do that counts. So, if a trait is ‘doing positive work for positive results’, then I will take that trait any day of the week and discard what we commonly call ‘flashy’ leadership traits."

Rate the trait

We fantasize visualizing the "perfect leader." Well, I’m here to tell you that one does not exist, at least on this planet. I know we try to conjure up the perfect leader with the perfect traits and put that person on a pedestal of perfection. You name a leader and I will uncover and provide you some traits and actions of that individual that would make your head spin.

We want our leaders to possess charisma, great communication skills, and vision. We want our leaders to model unselfish, noble, and magnanimous behaviors. Finally, we want strong, mission-driven, and unwavering leaders who sit atop a silver-white stallion, clad in shiny armor, waving a sword, saying, “This way, my people!”

That’s all fine and good, but I have never seen a picture of Mother Teresa on a horse, not have I seen videos of Dr. Martin Luther King in armor. What we do see is individuals such as Mother Teresa and Dr. King inspiring people through intentional, thoughtful and provocative acts of courage, determination and benevolence (just plain doing good).

Those bad traits we hate

Now, here’s what we hate to see in leaders. Remember, even bad, self-serving, and toxic people can become leaders (Hitler always comes to my mind), so we need to be careful. Destructive leaders have — unfortunately — motivated and inspired people throughout history.

My Rochester teaching colleague and I are currently writing about learning from bad leadership. We are discovering that bad leaders can be powerful, and if followers do not realize they are bad, they can become just like them. This makes me cringe.

Accordingly, we must be on our guard and watch out for those who may be leading us to the great abyss. There are enough of these people out there and they are full of hate and loathing. If I put my psychologist hat on, I can tell you that the trait these leaders share is lousy self-esteem and they can only feel good by destroying the well-being of others.

Identify what good leadership is and know what bad leadership is. Look into your heart to realize how this leadership is affecting you and what you can learn from it. Then, chart your path and emphasize and live those traits that will improve the world.

Contact Dave Conrad with questions or comments at Conrad is a professor at Augsburg College and directs the school's MBA program in Rochester.