Dealing with extreme leadership challenges: Lessons from Mt. Everest
The 2015 AIHce kicked off early Monday morning in Salt Lake City with the opening keynote address given by Alison Levine, team captain of the first American women’s Everest expedition.
Levine is in a unique position to discuss leadership practices. In addition to be a global adventurer, Levine has spent more than two decades climbing the corporate ladder. She worked in the pharmaceutical and medical device industry, earned an MBA from Duke University, and spent three years working for Goldman Sachs. She left Goldman in 2003 to serve as deputy finance director for Arnold Schwarzenegger in his successful bid to become Governor of California. In 2005, Levine founded the Climb High Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of jobless women in Africa. Alison currently works with the Thayer Leader Development Group at West Point and her new book On The Edge: The Art of High-Impact Leadership was published in January, 2015.
Says Levine:“My adventures have taken me to some of the harshest, most remote places on the planet, where determination is every bit as important as skill when it comes to survival. I have toughed it out in some of the world’s most dangerous and extreme environments (and I am not talking about my time on Wall Street) and have been in situations where effective leadership determined whether people lived or died. Whether climbing Everest or the corporate ladder, the requirements for success are strikingly similar, yet corporate America doesn’t exactly prepare leaders to deal with extreme situations.”
Levine gives audiences these leadership nuggets:
Fear is ok (normal); it’s complacency that can kill you
“You should never beat yourself up for feeling scared; fear is ok and helpful ?it’s a normal human emotion. Complacency is what will kill you. Be ready to move swiftly. You have to be able to act and react quickly as things around you are shifting and changing.”
Just get to the rock
“Break the big, hairy stuff down into much smaller parts. I remember getting out of my tent at Camp 4 (at 26,000 feet) and thinking about the summit at 29,028 feet. I started to freak out about what the summit push entailed. But of course I wasn’t going to give up just because it felt very intimidating. So the only way I could really wrap my brain around what I had to do was by breaking it down into much smaller parts. I stopped focusing on the summit and stared at a rock down the trail and thought, ‘I just need to make it to that rock.’ And I did. I made it to the rock. Then I did the same thing.”
Don’t give everything you’ve got to the summit
“People often forget that the summit is just the half-way point – you have to get back down, too. Most of the deaths on Everest occur on the descent – after a climber reaches the top. The reason so many accidents happen on the descent is because people use everything they have – all of their energy reserves — to get to the top, and then they have nothing left in them to get themselves back down the mountain. You have to know yourself well enough to judge when it is time to turn around and head back down. And you need to make that call when you still have enough energy left to descend. The number one goal of any expedition: come back alive. Number two is come back with all of your fingers and toes. Tagging the top of a mountain should never be the goal.”
Improvisation is the most important skill
“Improv skills are much more important than the ability to execute a plan. You must possess the ability to act/react quickly and make tough decisions when the conditions around you are far from perfect.”
Reward risk-takers rather than success stories
“Corporate America places way too much emphasis on being the first or achieving the most or being ‘the best.’ Often the people with stellar resumes are people who have not pushed themselves beyond their comfort zones. Usually the people who have been battered and bloodied are the ones who are out there taking the big risks. People need to know it’s ok to fail, as long as there is value in the experience. As leaders, we need to support the people who go big, even if they don’t achieve nearly what they set out to.
“Every mission we undertake in our lives should be not only 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. My hope is that the insights I’ve shared from my experiences climbing the world’s highest peaks and skiing to both Poles will inspire and enable people to embrace and master a leadership mindset, which is as much about how our goals are reached as it is about actually reaching them.”