Leadership Lessons From an Extreme Athlete

Alison Levine

Alison Levine’s background is enough to make your head spin. The avid extreme-sport athlete is one of a handful of American women to achieve the Adventurers Grand Slam — climbing the highest peaks on each continent and skiing to both the North and South Poles — all with a heart condition and circulatory diseases that puts her at high risk of frostbite, plus her doctors’ warnings to avoid cold environments.   
 
Oh, and she led the first American Women’s Everest Expedition, worked on Wall Street, ascended the ranks in the medical industry for two decades and worked a political campaign in California. She’s an adjunct professor at West Point and on the board of the Coach K Center of Leadership & Ethics at Duke University. She also founded a nonprofit helping women in Uganda learn how to climb mountains and speaks to audiences the world over about leadership. She spends about three days a month at home in San Francisco. She’s only 47.
 
Surviving some of the harshest conditions on earth has taught Levine a thing or two about thriving in the competitive Corporate world. She writes about it in her new book “On the Edge: The Art of High Impact Leadership,” and she shared some insights learned with us. Don’t expect the usual B-school lessons.

View From the Top

View From the Top

Alison Levine’s background is enough to make your head spin. The avid extreme-sport athlete is one of a handful of American women to achieve the Adventurers Grand Slam — climbing the highest peaks on each continent and skiing to both the North and South Poles — all with a heart condition and circulatory diseases that puts her at high risk of frostbite, plus her doctors’ warnings to avoid cold environments.   
 
Oh, and she led the first American Women’s Everest Expedition, worked on Wall Street, ascended the ranks in the medical industry for two decades and worked a political campaign in California. She’s an adjunct professor at West Point and on the board of the Coach K Center of Leadership & Ethics at Duke University. She also founded a nonprofit helping women in Uganda learn how to climb mountains and speaks to audiences the world over about leadership. She spends about three days a month at home in San Francisco. She’s only 47.
 
Surviving some of the harshest conditions on earth has taught Levine a thing or two about thriving in the competitive Corporate world. She writes about it in her new book “On the Edge: The Art of High Impact Leadership,” and she shared some insights learned with us. Don’t expect the usual B-school lessons.

Correction: A previous version stated that Alison Levine was the first American woman to achieve the Adventurers Grand Slam.

Prepare, Prepare — and be Aware

Prepare, Prepare — and be Aware

Changes in your environment will affect you, whether you’re in extreme locations like Antarctica and the North Pole — or in a job that’s vulnerable to a volatile economy or changing technology and markets. The better prepared you are — and the more aware you are of your surroundings — the better you can adapt to change. It’s not so much about being able to do one thing proficiently, it’s about learning how to be flexible and preparing for different scenarios so you’re not caught off guard.

Pictured: Levine in Antarctica/Credit: Eric Philips

Sometimes You Have to Move Backwards to Move Forward

Sometimes You Have to Move Backwards to Move Forward

You always want to move up the mountain, but because your body has to adapt, you have to spend time at lower altitudes. On Mount Everest, you may reach 20,000 feet one day, but have to descend to 17,000 feet right afterward for your body to adjust. Then you climb to 24,000 feet the next day, only to go back to 17,000 feet again. It’s easy to get discouraged and think that you’re losing ground, but acclimatizing is making progress. Same thing in the business world. 
 
I worked for a medical supply company and wanted to be a product manager. I interviewed for what I thought would be my dream position — a ticket to a big job in marketing. But I ended up in their professional educational department where I cold-called doctors and felt like a glorified telemarketer. But I really learned the customer base, their habits, I built relationships — and from that I developed a much stronger foundation of skills and experiences to help me succeed when I did get that big marketing gig.

Pictured: Mt. Everest Camp 3/Credit: Garrett Madison

Assemble a Team of People With Big Egos

Assemble a Team of People With Big Egos

I learned this lesson from Coach K [Mike Krzyzewski, head basketball coach at Duke University and coach of the United States men’s team] and it gelled with what I learned on the mountains. He told me that you want people who are good and know that they’re good. You don’t want to be at the Hillary Step — the last steep push until you get to the summit of Mt. Everest — and be stuck behind someone who isn’t confident. You want to be behind someone who thinks, “I got this.”

You also want someone with a “team ego” — people who are proud to be part of something that is collectively more important than any single individual. That’s what I looked for in my women’s team on Everest. Everyone put the team before themselves.

Pictured: Mt. Everest’s South Summit/Credit: Jake Norton

Solidify Relationships Before You Need Them

Solidify Relationships Before You Need Them

No matter how good you are, things can still go wrong. That's when you may need to rely on people outside of your team to help you. When you read the accounts of rescues [on mountains], which are dangerous to carry out, you’ll hear again and again that someone decided to attempt a rescue based on the fact that they knew the climber in danger. It makes a difference.
 
Developing strong relationships is critical to success in any environment. It’s important to take the time and make the effort to connect with people at every stage of your career — people who will rally around you and support you. Maybe they’ll even save your life.

Pictured: Women’s Everest Team at the Hillary Step/Credit: Brad Jackson

Complacency Is the Devil

Complacency Is the Devil

In an environment that is constantly shifting — be it on a mountain or in life — don’t assume your position is safe. On Everest, the most feared part of the mountain is the Khumbu Ice Fall, where ice chunks as big as small buildings are in constant motion. When the sun comes up and everything starts to melt, you’re in danger of being crushed. You have to move constantly and not take breaks until you’re out of the dangerous area. Fear is a good tool; it keeps you awake and alert. You have to be able to act and react quickly when you’re in a constantly moving environment — like the business world today.

Pictured: Khumbu Icefall/Credit: Jake Norton

Sometimes Weaknesses Can be Strengths

Sometimes Weaknesses Can be Strengths

For the South Pole expedition, I was going to show up and be the most prepared person on the team. To train, I dragged tires on the beach to simulate the weight and resistance of dragging my gear through snow. I wanted to be as strong as I could physically be. But someone who is 5’4” and 108 pounds can’t haul gear full of supplies like someone who is 6’3” and 225 pounds. I couldn’t keep up; I was slower and weaker. This made me think about my leadership style, when I had a slow person on my team and I wished they’d drop out. But you can’t drop out in Antarctica — you have to keep moving across the continent.
 
Our team leader and another member decided that they would take some of the weight out of my sled and put into theirs. They were willing to sacrifice for me because they wanted me to succeed. I wanted to help them in return and noticed that they were having trouble shoveling snow that we all had to do at the end of the day to make barriers for our tents. They were tall, and bending down again and again was hurting their backs. So I did the shoveling for them because I was so much shorter and shoveling didn’t hurt me — and turned my perceived weakness into a strength. This changed the way I looked at weak team members, in business or on an expedition. Be creative in finding their sweet spot. If you can help them, you’ll often end up getting more out of them than if their skills had been on par with the rest of the team.

Pictured: South Pole Expedition/Credit: Eric Philips

Sometimes You Have to Break the Rules

Sometimes You Have to Break the Rules

If you train people to follow rules, they forget to think for themselves. Take the case of Private Channing Moss, who was serving on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Pvt. Channing was hit in an ambush by a grenade that lodged in his body, sinking through, but didn’t explode. Army rules state that someone with live ammo in them should be given painkillers and left alone to die — lest it explode and kill everyone around. But everyone from Channing’s friend who radioed for help to the helicopter with a medical team to the army surgeon who decided to proceed with an operation ignored the rules. And they saved his life.
 
In most cases, chances are, you’re not risking a life, but sometimes doing the right thing means breaking the rules and using good judgment. It means doing the right thing for the customer and doing the right thing for the team. If it’s morally and ethically sound, your action makes sense.

Pictured: Mt. McKinley (the Highest Mountain Peak in North America)

Set a Good Example (Even If You Feel Like Puking)

Set a Good Example (Even If You Feel Like Puking)

On extreme expeditions, you often feel sick to your stomach. But you still have to keep going. In these environments, everyone is going to feel like crap. As a leader, you can’t expect that people on team endure what you’re not willing to endure. You have to suck it up, and do it for your team. Period. 

Pictured: Training Women in Uganda to Climb

Failure is Good

Failure is Good

Our society places so much emphasis on being the first, the best, the fastest. But people with perfect-looking resumes haven’t taken on a lot of risk. You get beat up and bloodied when you’ve taken risks.
 
People know about Sir. Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, the first people to summit Everest, but so many climbers tried before them. Hillary and Norgay benefited from collective information and past experience. The only reason I made it to the summit of Everest in 2010, despite the bad weather, was because I failed to do so in 2002. I knew what it felt like to get the snot kicked out of me, so I wasn’t afraid. 
 
Being the best or fastest or the first isn’t that important. It’s having the tenacity to get up again when you fail.

Pictured: Pre-Everest Lama Blessing Ceremony

You Might Also Like:
The Secrets of My Success
Leadership Lessons From a Former Microsoft Human Resources Director
7 Ways Successful People Rebound