Essential leadership characteristics during times of change

by | Apr 1, 2021 | Practical in the cellar, Winetech Technical

The world and workplace have permanently changed with the Coronavirus pandemic and uncertainty will remain with us for a long time, as threats of renewed waves of the Covid-19 virus and Covid-19 variants persist. Those who lead us should recognise that during the current challenging times, we look to our leaders at work and in society for more guidance and with higher expectations than usual. Therefore, when confusion, uncertainty and disruption exist, we tend to look to our leaders for clarity and to help us to accept circumstances.

Our society is usually quick to identify and condemn a poor leader, but do we know how to identify a good leader? We need to ask which qualities are essential during uncertain times, which qualities are important to bring out the best in people and will help them to figure out how to create a new and better future during unprecedented change. When people see their managers demonstrating certain leadership qualities, they will feel safer, stronger, and motivated to follow them. Strong leaders can draw people together and support them to succeed in the most difficult of circumstances. The greater the uncertainty, the more people want leaders to have a vision for the future and to figure out how to get there. Openness is particularly important when many things are changing quickly. People want to know if they can count on managers and management’s commitments and whether they are able to make the necessary changes. Management should therefore also be open to change and be able to make tough decisions, even if those decisions reflect badly on them, but to admit mistakes and to take responsibility for it.

It is important that cellar management share their insights with employees because cellar employees look to their managers to help them make sense of what is happening, so that they can better respond to it. When times are financially tough, employees need from management generosity of spirit, i.e. sharing knowledge, giving credit and praise and to confirm their individual potential. It is important to remember how necessary these small acts of generosity and kindness can be.

In times of change we need our managers to tell us the truth to the best of their ability and to do what they say they will do. It is important during the Covid-19 pandemic that cellar management and winemakers tell cellar assistants what they know to be true and to promise only what they fully believe can be delivered. Reliability will ensure that people are much more likely to be willing to keep moving forward when encountering difficulties and obstacles. Therefore, integrity is essential and should be obvious. Leadership and communication are intertwined, and cellar management, as well as winemakers must be able to communicate effectively in several ways with sometimes a larger group of cellar assistants.

During 2020 winemakers were interviewed and asked which characteristics they consider important in a potential leader and how they would successfully develop these qualities in a future leader. It is interesting to note that qualities such as integrity, reliability, transparency, responsibility, accountability, and loyalty were considered the most important characteristics by the winemakers. However, qualities such as communication, showing an interest in their work and taking initiative were considered equally important. Winemakers confirmed that cellar assistants should be able to take informed decisions when on their own and that they should not hesitate to ask questions. Poor decisions are usually made when questions are not asked. Winemakers believe natural, potential leaders should be mentored, coached, and increasingly given responsibilities. It is also important to trust them to get the work done, which will certainly result in sustained interest and motivation.

In-house training, together with informal mentorship relationships, are successful tools in the transfer of knowledge. Informal mentorship relationships are to the benefit of cellar assistants’ knowledge, as well as their emotional growth and are known to increase efficiency and support the process of preparing potential leaders to achieve their highest potential.

It has been established that participation in the Winetech study groups and workshops for senior cellar assistants encourage communication between cellar assistants and winemakers and establish in-house training due to the many questions asked by cellar assistants after attending the study groups or senior workshops. Most cellars have an open-door-policy approach, which has a positive effect on the morale of cellar assistants, who need confirmation that their opinions matter. It is also known that participation in the Winetech study groups and senior workshops improve productivity.

The Covid-19 pandemic affected the Winetech 2020 cellar assistant programmes in numerous ways and these effects will probably continue during 2021. Changes were made to the programmes to ensure that the study groups and senior workshops comply with regulation. These changes resulted in a new approach with positive changes made to the programmes. Some changes were unavoidable, e.g., the programmes were presented later than usual in the year, from the beginning of September and concluded early November. The number of participants were limited to ensure social distancing and the names of participants were submitted beforehand to the venues. Only listed participants were allowed on the premises. The wine tastings were not included in the programmes and the evaluations were cancelled to ensure the safety of all. Unfortunately, due to the cancellation of the evaluations, the annual announcement of the Top Ten cellar assistants did not take place. This was a great pity as the Top Ten is an acknowledgement of cellar assistants’ hard work and their contributions made to the wine industry. However, in the feedback and evaluations received of the programmes, it was noticed that transfer of knowledge during 2020 was more effective, which could possibly be due to the smaller groups, with limited number of cellar assistants allowed to attend. The smaller groups encouraged participants to ask more in-depth questions, which would not necessarily happen in larger groups.

The project leader of the Winetech study groups and senior cellar assistant workshops found during these uncertain times, that some qualities are more important than others. It is important that one should have a vision, which is clear and concise and that one should know exactly what should be accomplished, irrespective of the challenges one is facing on a professional or even on a personal level. Clarity will give cellars the opportunity to decide whether they want to participate in the Winetech study groups and senior cellar assistant workshops or not. As a project leader one should be resilient but show consistency in taking decisions and rarely back out or change one’s mind unless it is necessary. One should be confident in taking decisions but be humble enough to admit when wrong and see criticism as an opportunity for growth. Show the world how grateful you are to be where you are and that you are passionate about what you know and care about, as it will shine through and people will follow.


The team of Riebeek Valley Wine Company.


Lutzville Vineyards’ team.


Breedekloof cellar assistants attending the study groups.


Cellar assistants of Upington, Groblershoop and Grootdrink Cellars.


Cellar assistants of Kakamas Cellar attending the study groups.


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