Purpose: The purpose of this paper is to present a meaning-based framework to understand the motivation of knowledge workers and an effective leadership model that suits that framework. Design/methodology/approach: Definitions of knowledge worker, meaning, complex adaptive systems and leadership are provided. The concept of meaning in work is explored through the constructs of work orientation and identity. Based on that, a global meaning framework for knowledge workers is outlined. Additionally, the servant leadership model is detailed and analyzed in light of the global meaning framework for knowledge workers and the need for complex adaptive behavior in successful knowledge-based organizations. Findings: The motivation of knowledge workers can be well understood from a meaning perspective, taking two constructs into account: work orientation and identity. The global meaning framework of knowledge workers is based on three main characteristics: work as a calling, need for a strong membership association with peers, and need for autonomy. Servant leadership is a model that fits well with those characteristics, potentially enabling the creation of a sense of meaning and purpose and consequently inducing the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers. As a side-effect, complex adaptive behavior will emerge, leading to both organizational and social performance. Originality/value: The proposed model combines a meaning perspective with servant leadership theory to provide insight into the motivation of knowledge workers. This is posited in the context of complex adaptive behavior.