Alison Levine is a history-making polar explorer, mountaineer and New York Times bestselling author who has climbed the highest peak on each continent and skied to both the North and South poles. In her book, On the Edge: Leadership Lessons from Mount Everest and Other Extreme Environments, she discusses spending prolonged periods of time in some of the world’s most dangerous and inhospitable places, she tackles the topics of creating cohesive teams, taking responsible risks and developing no-nonsense leaders who can succeed in times of uncertainty.
You’ve earned an MBA, climbed the Seven Summits, skied to both poles and worked at Goldman Sachs. With all of this experience, what are some of the similarities you’ve encountered between the business world and the challenging environments you deal with on your expeditions?
Having spent time in some of the world’s most dangerous and extreme environments (and I am not talking about my time on Wall Street), 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 Plans are outdated as soon as they are finished in environments that change rapidly.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.
Another key to success would be 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 need to be looking out for the people around them and helping them achieve their goals.
You talk a lot about preparedness on the mountain. How can we bring that same mindset to the workplace?
Preparedness is not just about you; it’s something you owe your teammates. Do your homework, and when you show up, make sure you’re in top shape and ready for action. Part of being prepared is also learning how to improvise, because if you’re on a high mountain somewhere and figure out you’re missing a critical piece of gear, you’re forced to figure out how to get by without it. I know how to make a stretcher out of ski poles and GORE-TEX® jackets.
You have a chapter in your book about why it is important to break the rules—something people are hesitant to do in the workplace. Why do you think that is?
Corporate America spends way too much time and money training people to follow rules in order to best ensure certain outcomes. In extreme environments, nothing is predictable, so it’s much more important to train people to think on their feet and do the right thing rather than follow whatever guidelines were in their outdated employee manual. Sometimes doing the right thing goes against standard operating procedure.
What are the biggest challenges facing CEOs and government leaders right now?
The biggest challenge I see is that they’ve 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. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook fame 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.
With regard to government leaders, they should not ask constituents to do or to endure anything they are not willing to do or endure themselves. They should be willing to abide by the same tax laws, the same health insurance regulations, etc.
And both corporate and government leaders should 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 noncommissioned 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.
What was it like to stand on top of Mt. Everest―the final step in completing the Adventure Grand Slam (climbing the Seven Summits and skiing to both poles)?
Standing at the top of Mt. Everest isn’t all that. It just isn’t. Mt. Everest is just a pile of rock and ice. And topping out doesn’t mean you’re good at anything other than pushing yourself and maybe withstanding pain and discomfort for extended periods of time.
In 2002 I made my first Everest attempt and didn’t get to the summit. But I probably learned more from that experience than I did when I topped out in 2010. Getting to the top of a mountain is meaningless unless it provides perspective. And by perspective, I do not mean the view from the top. Every mission we undertake in our lives should not only be about reaching the goal, but also the people we affect and the lessons we learn along the way. The journey is where we find perspective.
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