I recently had the privilege of taking a Poynter Institute course on editing. It was a reminder in broad strokes of what to do and not to do -- not just as the mechanics of editing go, but the editor-writer relationship as well.
Largely, the message centered on the editor as a coach, the champion of the writer as opposed to the nagging nitpicker many envision. In this light, the instructor -- accomplished New York Times editor and teacher Merrill Perlman -- shared a critical lesson that has application outside of journalism.
Editors should always ask themselves: Am I making an edit, or am I making a change? Or, as I like to paint it, am I crossing the red line?
The distinction may seem subtle at first blush, but it's really not. An edit is a specific alteration for accuracy or correctness -- adding a grammatically correct comma, fixing a misspelling, and so on. There are broader, thematic applications, too, as when an editor questions a claim that doesn't support the thesis or asks a writer to fill in evidentiary gaps in an argument.
A change, on the other hand, is when the editor decides to become the writer, stepping across the line they should never cross. Changes are made without consultation and many are unnecessary -- simply stylistic things, to sections of a text that the editor would prefer to read slightly differently but aren't truly wrong.
It seems to me the same differentiation applies to those in leadership. Leaders -- the best ones, anyway -- are empowered to support, teach, and uplift. They cannot function as the ultimate doer because, quite simply, there is too much to do. And anyway, even top-tier leaders don't have all of the skills necessary to complete every task. So, tasks are delegated, and leaders oversee and support their team's work.
What I see in too many nascent business leaders, however, is the constant crossing of the red line into change territory. They'll step in to redo work already done by others, quite competently, in fact, but not the way the CEO or business leader would have done it. Does that make the work better? More often than not, no. What's more, it exhausts the leader, discourages the team member, and makes poor (or no) use of critically different skill sets.
The leader who edits, however, is the leader who earns a loyal following. They adhere to the red-line rule. There is teaching done at the outset, to be sure, but leaders who let their team members own their space often uncover new voices, thoughts, and perspectives that never would have emerged had they changed the work, top to bottom. It's this "difference of innovation" that allows a company to grow in new ways.
Ask yourself: Am I a leader who edits, or am I leader who changes? Have I empowered my talented team to do their best work? Am I building their confidence by giving them opportunities to shine?
Or do I consistently cross the red line?
At the end of the day, any leader who desires company growth (read: all of them) will someday have to face the reality that they cannot do it all themselves. The only way a company can truly grow is if talented employees are brought on to do the work leaders cannot, to build up and out, and eventually, to lead their own protégés to new heights.
Put another way, I suppose: Don't control your talent. Don't cross the red line. Let them soar, and the company will soar with them.