What a Mount Everest Expedition Can Teach You About Leadership

Jan 22, 2014
8 Min Read

Alison Levine can teach us a lot about what it takes to be a leader from her experiences climbing mountains to her time in corporate America. Levine is the author of "On the Edge: The Art of High-Impact Leadership." She has climbed the highest peak on each continent, served as team captain of the first American Women's Everest Expedition and skied to both the North and South Poles. She also served as an adjunct instructor at the United States Military Academy at West Point and has spoken at the World Economic Forum and to Fortune 500 companies. In this brief interview, she talks about high-impact leadership, what she learned in extreme environments that helped her out at companies, mistakes she's made and more.

Dan Schawbel: What did you learn about leadership from your Everest expedition?

Alison Levine: Leaders need to be willing to take smart risks – and when you take risks, sometimes you’re skillfully (or not so skillfully) balancing on the edge between  invigorating success and complete disaster. You have to be willing to walk that line – which you can see on the cover of my book jacket. That’s me climbing Mount McKinley in Alaska.

I also learned the importance of empowering everyone to think and act like a leader regardless of title or tenure or experience level, because if something happens to the “designated leader,” the rest of the team needs to be able to step up and move forward with the mission. Leadership is not something that is solely the responsibility of senior management or the executive team―everyone within an organization should realize that they should be looking out for the people around them and helping them to achieve their goals.

Dan: How do you define "high-impact leadership"?

Alison: “High-impact leadership” is making a conscious effort to improve your surroundings.  The way you interact with the people around you is no different than the way you interact with the environment when you’re on a remote expedition.  Basically: if there is something that looks broken―fix it. Leave everything in better condition than it was when you got there.

Dan: How did your experiences in extreme environments help you succeed on Wall Street?

Alison: Having spent time in some of the world’s most dangerous and extreme environments, I know the challenges of managing risk and dealing with the uncontrollable, so I’ve definitely learned some critical survival skills. Whether climbing Everest or the corporate ladder, the requirements for success are strikingly similar. For starters: Sometimes you have to toss well laid-out plans out the window and take action based on the situation at the time rather than on the plan. Plans are outdated as soon as they are finished in environments that change very rapidly. You must possess the ability to act/react quickly and make tough decisions when the conditions around you are far from perfect, because complacency will kill you.

Dan: What are some of your management tips with dealing with adversity and overcoming it?

Alison: Be more failure-tolerant. Reward risk-takers rather than success stories. There were plenty of climbers who attempted Everest before Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzig Norgay, and no one knows their names. But those guys were instrumental in providing the 411 for future expeditions. Corporate America places way too much emphasis on being the first or achieving the most or being “the best.” We need to start rewarding risk-takers and recognize those who have gone big—even if they’ve failed. Someone is going to find a cure for cancer soon. Everyone will know that person’s name. But there are a gazillion scientists and researchers who are working extremely hard every day and are laying the groundwork for others right now. Let’s give it up for those people too, okay?

Dan: What are some of the most common mistakes leaders make?

Alison: Too many leaders have lost the trust of their teams and constituents. There are lots of strategies for building trust and loyalty mentioned in the book, but one thing leaders should be willing to do is to get right out there on the front lines with their people. I have a chapter that compares/contrasts leadership styles in corporate America, and I look at John Thain vs Mark Zuckerberg. Both have been at the helm of high-profile, successful companies. Both are worth gazillions of dollars. But while John Thain sat in a fancy office with a $1400 trash can and a $35,000 toilet (talk about a "waste" of money!), Zuckerberg sits at a desk in the common workspace with his employees. He waits in line at the taco truck at lunchtime. He sits on the ground and eats with his teams. Like him or not, Zuckerberg knows how to create trust and loyalty because even though he can afford to buy a couple of jets and a few islands, when he’s at work―he’s a regular guy. In other words: embrace the hoodie.

Leaders should also learn to adopt the “officers eat last” practice, which is followed by the Army. At meal time, food order goes in inverse order of rank. Privates, the lowest ranking soldiers, eat first. The non-commissioned officers (NCOs) don’t eat until all of their soldiers are fed. The commissioned officers don’t eat until all of the NCOS are fed. And after everyone else has had their rations, the commanding officers get to eat. Take care of your people before you take care of yourself.

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