- Feb 19, 2021
When Tracy Edwards decided to sail around the world with the first all-women crew, the hurdles seemed insurmountable. She had to brave storms, treacherous conditions, sexism, and skepticism.
But Edwards and the crew of the Maiden finished second place in the 1989/90 Whitbread Round the World Race. Edwards was later awarded an MBE, an award for an outstanding achievement or service to the British Empire, and became the first woman awarded the Yachtsman of the Year Trophy.
At the 8th annual Leader Character and Candour Conference for HBA1 students, Edwards discussed how her approach to leadership and team-building factored into that success. Hosted by Ivey’s Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership, the goal of the event is to show the students the importance that character and candour play in becoming better leaders. The conference also included a presentation from Wes Hall, founder of the BlackNorth Initiative.
Here are just a few of the important lessons she shared with the students.
Accountability is about ownership and initiative. It’s about following through when you say you’ll do something and getting it done. Edwards shared that she had been expelled from school and moved from job to job and place to place. She described herself as having never stuck with anything in her life. But her mother gave her some advice that helped her to see it through: the importance of being accountable to others.
“She said if you give up or turn back or just get bored with the whole thing, it’s not just your life you are affecting. You will have the dreams of 12 people in your hands,” Edwards said.
Leaders with humility encourage, support, and guide their teams. And by valuing their teams, they transfer the ownership of the collective goal to the team members, enabling them to tap into their full potential. Edwards said one of her heroes is Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, the polar explorer who led three British expeditions to the Antarctic. After reading that some of Shackleton's best qualities as a leader were his care and respect for his crew, she knew she wanted to lead her team like he did. She also kept in mind that any leader who had ever got 100 per cent from her had cared about her opinion.
“I wanted [the team members] to feel like they owned this project. When this happened it was all about Tracy and Maiden … I wanted this to be about the team,” she said.
One of the ways that she encouraged her team members to feel ownership was by allowing each person to take a turn leading weekly meetings. This allowed the group to discuss strategy with each team member’s perspective in mind and consider how to make each role easier. As a result, the team members knew they could count on each other.
“I knew that I could look next door to me at the person standing next to me and say, ‘I trust you with my life. I respect you, I trust you, and I have total faith in you.’ I had total faith in us as a team,” she said.
Collaborative leadership encourages people to work together. It’s about being co-operative, collegial, and interconnected. Edwards said Hussein bin Talal, King of Jordan, one of the funders of Maiden, taught her about the importance of collaboration. Edwards said she was worried about the boat, sponsorship, and the technology, but King Hussein helped her to identify the main priority: putting together a collaborative team.
“He said, ‘Being a great leader and putting together a team that works as a team, that's how you win.’ He told me the other stuff will just happen. You’ll learn that, and it will come together,” she said. “Another piece of great advice King Hussein gave me was, when you're choosing your team, make sure you're the most stupid person in the room.”
Edwards said choosing the team went beyond just looking at what skills each person brought to the table. Having a variety of different personalities was important. She had the women spend time with each other and watched them closely to see how they reacted to each other. Edwards said the team members worked together preparing the boat for two years prior to the race and that gave them an advantage.
“By the time we got to the start line, we were a battle-hardened team … We had worked together, we’d sweated together, we’d cried together, we’d bled together, and we’d broken bones together,” she said. “The other crews hadn’t had to go through that so we ended up with a massive advantage.”
One of the great tenets of leadership is the need to pass on knowledge to others. Leadership mentoring involves inspiring others to be their best. Prior to entering the race, Edwards had been working as a cook on a boat because at that time women didn’t navigate. But one of her skippers encouraged her to learn to navigate. That’s how she found her passion and went on to skipper the Maiden.
“He said something so profound to me, ‘Why are you being a bystander in your own life? You're supposed to be playing a starring role,’” she said.
Edwards encouraged the students to take one final lesson from her experience: Don’t be afraid to take risks or follow your dreams.
“If you stand still, absolutely nothing will happen. You have to keep moving forward, even if you have no idea of the direction you’re going in,” she said. “My mother instilled in me this sense that you can’t wait around for the right job or the right situation … It's all about walking forward, embracing the universe, and inviting everything into your world.”
Learn more about The Maiden Factor Foundation that works for the continued preservation of the yacht, Maiden, and to facilitate her ongoing three-year world tour with the mission of ‘inspiring and empowering women and girls to reach their potential through education and bringing awareness of gender inequality, specifically for disenfranchised women and girls globally with no access to education, to give them the fighting chance they deserve’.