Four characteristics of leaders that are successful in building a resilient workforce

Four characteristics of leaders that are successful in building a resilient workforce

The global Covid-19 pandemic is catastrophically disruptive for business and workplaces. Yet the silver lining has been the emergence of organizational structures, management systems and leadership roles that can survive and thrive in crisis. What have we learnt from leaders who successfully steered their organisations through the pandemic? In this article, we reveal four essential qualities of leaders to help develop resilient and sustainable workplaces, to get through the ups and downs this pandemic brings.

Swift adaption has allowed business to continue functioning, despite jarring interruptions to global supply chains and working in-person. Our research has revealed a number of new positive trends in management that are resulting in heightened resilience. We observe a type of leadership more inclined to recruiting and fostering positive psychological resources among employees and strengthen mindsets, to build a foundation for healthy and sustainable organisations.

Our research offers a framework for fostering workplaces that can thrive in crises through leadership, based on a study involving a two-wave survey of 408 employees working in services and manufacturing sector organisations. (Such a survey involves collection of data at two separate periods of time). As leaders carry the responsibility to provide a safe and stress-free work environment where the followers can thrive, this study reveals the positive role of ‘servant style’ leadership for playing a crucial role in generating positive human dynamics in organisations and protecting employees from problematic behaviours such as bullying as well as in developing their resilience capacity.

Does servant leadership sound like an oxymoron to you?  Well, that might be because you associate leadership with self-serving and domineering behaviour. Robert Greenleaf is credited turning the concept of leadership on its head and inventing the term ‘servant leadership’ in his essay ‘The Servant as Leader’ published in 1970. It is an 'other-oriented approach to leadership' that emphasizes leaders' commitment to serving their followers' needs. The philosophy behind servant leadership suggests that leaders have the greatest influence when they prioritize the fulfilment of their followers' needs rather than focusing on satisfying their own self-interest. The concept has continued to attract scholarly attention over the years with many descriptive and prescriptive writings devoted to understanding what servant leaders do and how they should ideally be doing. 

Bullying, harassment and burnout are increasingly reported in workplaces. Studies suggest contemporary Australian workplaces are rampant with bullying and other problematic behaviours with one in two Australian employees experiencing workplace bullying during their careers. Likewise, 52% employees in the US experienced burnout in 2021. Other studies have linked workplace bullying and harassment with mental health problems including stress and depression.

Yet, traditional methods of tackling these behavioural problems have been found to be largely unsuccessful. No wonder, the leadership style of far too many leaders looks like bullying or destructive for the followers. The incidence of these workplace problems indicates serious gaps in organizational and leadership practices in ensuring safety at work.

People work in an office.

What the pandemic has bought to the fore is that in stressful and turbulent situations, workplaces will only be sustainable if leaders can empathise with their employees, nurture their capacity to face adversity and help them to recover from setbacks. Since the creation of healthy work environments is the responsibility of leadership, this article reveals four essential qualities of leaders that would help develop resilient and sustainable workplaces.

1.       Empathetic leadership: Caring for employees and integrating their input into decision-making processes are critical for an organisation’s survival and stability in crisis. Managers leading in this style embrace empathy, integrity, trustworthiness, and humility. Positive communication and support provided by such leaders assist employees to navigate hardships and re-build their confidence. Leaders should empathize with the followers to anticipate early warning signals and be quick to meet their needs.

2.      Resourcing resilience: Servant leaders put their followers first, empower them and help them in developing their personal and professional capabilities including resilience. Resilience is nurtured when employees see their work role models/leaders as caring individuals who prioritise collective needs over personal needs to promote the common good. Managers should create a work culture of compassion and care by being attentive to the concerns and needs of employees and provide necessary support to help them combat difficult situations. They should invest in developing their employee’s full personal capacities.

3.      Developing resilient mindsets among employees: Resilience mindsets have become a necessity for employees to survive crisis. Cultivating resilience mindsets requires committed leaders who could emotionally connect with employees and help in reinterpreting or reappraising the adverse situation. Empowering your employees, engaging in authentic communication with them and providing them with opportunities to cultivate strong ties at work also helps to develop employees’ resilience capacity.

4.      Encouraging compassion and support between employees: Servant leaders can significantly improve the quality of work environments by setting strong standards for compassionate behaviours between employees and cultivating a culture of mutual respect and care. For starters, this means eliminating bullying in the workplace, which can be extremely caustic in crises. Instead of workers turning on each other with a dog-eat-dog mentality, leaders should encourage employees to support each other.  Leaders must get in the habit of helping others and use compassion to strengthen community and bring positive change in times of turbulence.

Servant leadership role models

Classic servant leaders include Nelson Mandela and Pakistan’s Abdus Sattar Edhi. Two contemporary leaders with servant leadership qualities we can turn to as role models today are Colleen Barret and Angela Merkel.

Colleen Barrett, the former president of Southwest Airlines, instituted the Golden Rule as the company’s motto and developed a business model that prioritises employees concerns and satisfaction. This ethic of reciprocity is common across many cultures. It involves that one treats others as s/he wants to be treated.

Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel also embodied the servant leadership philosophy, using her influence to create an inclusive and equitable economy. While she acted as the servant of the population, this in no way made her weaker. She was a clear-sighted and decisive leader, rising to become the most effective and respected statesperson in Europe during her period in power.  


Dr Saima Ahmad, Associate Professor Shelley Marshall and Mohammad Nazim: Business and Human Rights Research Centre, RMIT College of Business and Law

19 June 2023


19 June 2023


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Acknowledgement of Country

RMIT University acknowledges the people of the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung language groups of the eastern Kulin Nation on whose unceded lands we conduct the business of the University. RMIT University respectfully acknowledges their Ancestors and Elders, past and present. RMIT also acknowledges the Traditional Custodians and their Ancestors of the lands and waters across Australia where we conduct our business - Artwork 'Luwaytini' by Mark Cleaver, Palawa.