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Forbes: What Alison Levine Knows About Leadership That Corporate Managers Don’t

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By Kathy Caprino  Jan 3, 2014

As a career success coach who helps women become leaders of their own lives, I’ve read hundreds of articles and books about leadership. Sadly, so much of it, in my humble opinion, is drivel – repurposed material from outmoded corporate models that don’t fit a majority of women and certainly don’t align with new, expansive thinking about what truly motivates and engages people and moves organizations forward at lightning speed to thrive in inconstant times.

I was thrilled, then, to connect with Alison Levine, a true leadership expert and history-making polar explorer and mountaineer who served as team captain of the first American Women’s Everest Expedition, and also climbed the highest peak on each continent and skied to both the North and South Poles—a feat known as the Adventure Grand Slam, which fewer than forty people in the world have achieved. In January 2008, she made history as the first American to complete a 600-mile traverse from west Antarctica to the South Pole following the route of legendary explorer Reinhold Messner. Levine completed this arduous journey on skis while hauling 150 pounds of her gear and supplies in a sled harnessed to her waist. Her success in extreme environments is noteworthy given she has had three heart surgeries and suffers from Raynaud’s disease, which causes the arteries that feed her fingers and toes to collapse in cold weather—leaving her at extreme risk for frostbite.

In addition to having tackled some of the most challenging environments in the outdoors, Levine has also 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 hits the shelves on January 7th.

Here’s Alison take on leadership, and the 5 most important leadership concepts that you won’t necessarily learn in corporate America:

“My take on leadership comes primarily from my experiences as a high-altitude mountaineer and polar explorer. 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 nottalking 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.”

Alison’s book does, and here are some highlights:

1. Fear is ok (normal); it’s complacency that can kill you

I learned this lesson in the dreaded Khumbu Icefall, which is one of the most feared parts of the route on the south side of Mount Everest. Matter of fact, many climbers choose to climb Everest from the north side (from Tibet) just to avoid having to go through this section of the route. The Khumbu Icefall is basically two-thousand vertical feet of these massive ice blocks – we’re talking the size of small buildings. The Icefall moves at a rate of about four feet per day; and as the sun comes up and everything starts to melt, the ice chunks shift around so climbers are in constant danger of being crushed. The ice blocks can topple over or come crashing down at any minute.

What makes the Icefall even more frightening is the fact that you have to cross dozens of open crevasses where you could fall hundreds of feet to your death. But you should never beat yourself up for feeling scared; fear is okay and helpful ―it’s a normal human emotion. Complacency is what will kill you. What’s the best way to increase your odds of getting through the Khumbu Icefall unscathed? Be ready to move swiftly. You have to be able to act and react quickly as things around you are shifting and changing.

2. Just get to the rock

Break the big, hairy stuff down into much smaller parts. When you’re up in the death zone (which is any elevation above 26,000’), your body is slowly starting to die. Brain function and motor function are impaired. You have to take five to ten breaths for every step. 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 doing the math (“five to ten breath for every step…and we need to cover a distance of more than 3000 vertical feet…that means…holy cow, there is no way I can do this!!!”). 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 again – I just focused on a piece of ice I could see down the trail and thought, “I just need to make it to that piece of ice.” And I did. And then I made it one more landmark. And one more after that. I climbed through the entire night that way, and instead of feeling like the summit was completely out of reach it got closer and closer and closer.

3. Don’t give everything you’ve got to the summit

4. Improvisation is the most important skill

Improv skills are much more important than the ability to execute a plan. On a mountain, weather and route conditions will decide how you proceed, so rarely will you be able to stick to a particular plan. In business, plans are outdated as soon as they’re finished because of the breakneck pace of technology and rampant disruption, so 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. You must possess the ability to act/react quickly and make tough decisions when the conditions around you are far from perfect.

5. 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.” 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 okay 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.

For more information, visit Alison Levine and her new book On The Edge: The Art of High-Impact Leadership, follow her on Twitter (@Levine_Alison), and watch Alison’s interview with Charlie Rose on CBS This Morningon January 6th.