I have heard many managers refer to the loss of people in an organisation by way of a simple analogy — “Wheat and chaff”, they say. The insinuation is obvious: those who leave an organisation are chaff, or waste; those who choose to stay are the wheat, or value-adding parts. It’s a nice, simple excuse for managers who struggle to accept the part they often play when people leave. The sad truth was made all too clear in a Gallup poll that found the number one reason people leave is due to poor management. They summarised their research like this:
“People leave managers, not companies… in the end, turnover is mostly a manager issue.”
More than anything though, the phrase “wheat and chaff” is an indicator of what we might call the manager-mindset. This way of thinking views others in a predominantly critical light that will likely restrict their ability to lead and inspire people. The manager-mindset will sadly hold your organisation back, preventing it from achieving its potential.
The wheat and chaff analogy comes from the age-old practice of threshing wheat. Threshing is the violent action required to remove the grain from its protective husk. Once the husk is removed, the lighter “chaff” (consisting of straw and now empty husks) can then be carried away in a breeze, leaving the heavier grain to fall at your feet. Perhaps one of the most famous references to wheat and chaff comes from the Tanakh. What is interesting about this particular story is how it celebrates the opposite view from the one you usually hear when people mention wheat and chaff.
The story is set in the countryside amongst farmer’s fields. One of the locals, a man named Gideon, is at the bottom of a well, threshing wheat. Obviously, this is a really poor choice of location to separate wheat from chaff — there is no breeze to carry the lighter chaff away, so both wheat and chaff falls straight down at your feet. The reason he has chosen such a poor location for this important task is quite simple: Gideon is a coward. He is afraid of the Midianites who have recently invaded the area. What happened next is where things get interesting…
According to the story, someone appears in the bottom of the well and greets him with the words “Good Afternoon Gideon, you brave and mighty warrior, you” (or words to that effect). You can easily imagine what Gideon might have thought: Is this guy being funny?? He must have got the wrong Gideon?
The alternative requires a completely different mindset: Gideon’s visitor in the bottom of the well was choosing to look past Gideon’s obvious faults and shortcomings in order to inspire and encourage him. Taking the stranger’s words to heart, amazingly, Gideon goes on to fulfil those words – he became a courageous, mighty warrior. According to the story, he led a small band of 300 men into a completely lopsided battle against over 100,000 men – and prevailed. Courageous and victorious against all odds.
As fanciful as this sounds, the story of Gideon is not an isolated example. There are many, many stories that have survived and been retold throughout history, of the flawed (or chaff) becoming something so much more than anyone imagined. Whether you personally choose to consider these stories as fact, myth, or some mix of the two, what you cannot deny is that they have inspired millions and millions of people. There is a clear lesson here about what it takes to encourage, motivate, and inspire people – an insight into the leadership mindset.
Gideon was clearly “chaff” by any interpretation of the metaphor. But a few words provided the catalyst he needed and opened his eyes to the possibilities of what he could be, and inspired him to become something more. Importantly, the words preceded any evidence. Choosing to speak these words requires courage and leadership. In contrast, the manager-mindset is plagued by insecurity and fear about people’s motives – and it tends to shift the blame onto others for not doing enough. Choosing the manager-mindset creates a significant barrier to inspiring and leading people, and in doing so ultimately holds the organisation back.
You don’t lead by hitting people over the head — that’s assault, not leadership.
— Dwight D. Eisenhower
To be greater than the sum of its parts, organisations need leaders who have the courage to see the potential and seek to inspire those around them to be something more than they are. When people do leave, we should look to learn from it, rather than deflect criticism or explain it away using the phrase “Wheat and chaff”.