Can the key to good leadership and business success be boiled down to one, single element? As a scholar, I usually argue that leadership is complex and that many factors contribute to successful leadership. In fact, in an edited book that sought the “best practices” in leadership, our leadership experts had difficulty summarizing best practices in just a few bullet points.

But something happened to me the other day that made me think that perhaps there is one main key to business and leadership success.

I had lunch at my favorite Chinese restaurant, and, as is custom, it ended with a fortune cookie. Usually, the fortunes are mundane bits of fluff, but this one was different. It read: “Business is a lot like playing tennis; if you don’t serve well, you lose.”

Never mind that ancient Chinese philosophers probably didn’t play a lot of tennis, but the idea of serving makes a lot of sense. In all industries, not just the services sector, the key to gaining customer loyalty and continued patronage revolves around quality service. But the very best leaders also serve; they serve their stakeholders, their followers, their mission, their team’s objectives. 

The theory of servant leadership is often connected to Robert Greenleaf, who worked for mega-monopoly AT&T in 1940s and 1950s —not exactly the sort of organizational environment that emphasized service above all. But Greenleaf, appropriately drawing on Eastern philosophies, became a leadership author and consultant, and emphasized that service is the key to the very best sort of business (and more general) leadership. 

The notion of servant leadership has become increasingly popular in recent years, yet there is relatively little research attention given to it. That is a misfortunate oversight on the part of leadership researchers because it is likely true that service, more than any other single factor, is, as the fortune cookie said, the key to leadership and business success.


Greenleaf, Robert K. (2002). Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness (25th anniversary ed.). New York: Paulist Press.

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