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Glass Ceiling: Q&A Mountaineer Alison Levine: Don’t Fear Failure

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Alison Levine is a history-making polar explorer and mountaineer. She served as team captain of the first American Women’s Everest Expedition and has 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 was the first American to complete a 600-mile traverse from west Antarctica to the South Pole following the route of legendary explorer Reinhold Messner. Prior to her mountaineering adventures, 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. Levine served as an adjunct instructor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership and is a strategic advisor for the Thayer Leader Development Group at West Point, an executive education a program that shares West Point leadership best practices with senior level-executives from the public and private sectors. She is the author of the New York Times bestseller On the Edge: The Art of High-Impact Leadership . Learn more about her at http://www.alisonlevine.com/

Your first climb was Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa when you were 32. Why didn’t you stop there and return to a much safer business career?

From the time I was young I was intrigued by the stories of early Arctic and Antarctic explorers and early mountaineers. I read books and watched documentaries. I had a second heart surgery when I turned 30 and 18 months later I realized that if I wanted to know what it would be like to be an adventurer and be out there in those remote, extreme environments, I should get out there and do it.

Kilimanjaro is a very accessible mountain; it’s not technical. It’s really just a long hike but I knew it would give me a taste of what it was like to be at altitude (what does at altitude mean?). I had no idea how I was going to feel when I got to the mountain. I’d never done anything like it before. I didn’t even own the right warm clothes for a trek like that. I had to borrow them from friends and friends of friends.

But when I got there, even though I was outside my comfort zone, I had a very calm feeling. I knew it was going to be a challenging, difficult exhausting climb for me but for whatever reason I really felt at peace in that environment. So after Kilimanjaro I very much wanted to do more climbing. Even though it was incredibly tough, I liked that feeling of being in a remote, extreme environment where I had to really push myself to get past my self-perceived limitations.

What sort of heart condition did you have before that trek?

I was born with a congenital heart defect. They tried to correct it when I was 17 but weren’t able to then. They fixed it when I was 30. The medical techniques had improved.

How did having endured and overcome the heart problems affect your resolve to climb mountains?

It made me realize that nothing should hold me back and that there was nothing I should be afraid of from a health standpoint.

In 2002 you were the team leader for the first American Women’s Everest Expedition. You didn’t reach the summit. What happened?

We had to turn around a couple hundred feet from the top because of a storm. That was so tough to take. Understand that you spend two months on that mountain—that’s how long an Everest expedition takes—and then to miss it by what felt like a stone’s throw. That’s tough.

Ford (which sponsored our expedition) hired a public relations company, Hill & Knowlton, to do a media tour prior to the trip. So not only did we have the pressure of wanting to get to the top of the mountain, we had 450 media outlets following our expedition. CNN was doing live updates from the mountain.

When you’re on a high-profile expedition like that and you don’t make it, it’s incredibly disappointing. But you always have to err on the side of health and safety. There’s only so much risk you can take with a team when you’re up so high in the mountains. The Number 1 priority is to bring the team back alive. Number 2 is to come back with all your fingers and toes! So reaching the summit is down the list a bit.

People forget that the summit is only the halfway point. You still have to get yourself all the way back down. Reaching the summit isn’t the goal: it’s getting there and back. Most deaths on the mountain happen on the way down because people use every ounce of strength in them to get to the top and then they don’t have the reserves they need to get back down.

Did you want to send a message about what women are capable of achieving?

Absolutely. And at the time there were few women active in mountaineering. We were excited to show what a team of women could do when they locked arms and worked together.

Even though we didn’t get to the top, it was still one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had. The other women were incredible. I couldn’t have picked a better team. It was an altitude record for all of us on the team and I think we did send a message to women about pushing your limits and trying things you might not think you can accomplish.

You were on your way to building a good business career before you headed to the mountains. Was it difficult to unhitch yourself from business and become an adventurer?

Mountaineering was something I had been passionate about for years, but I just wasn’t sure how to turn that passion into a career. When you go to business school, it’s easy to fall into a traditional desk job and stay there. I was also very nervous about paying off the $70,000 in student loans I was carrying.

But in my heart I knew I wanted to do something nontraditional. I knew it had to involve the outdoors and adventure travel. I just didn’t know how to go at it. Sometimes when you have a dream about a career or something you want in life, it’s not always crystal clear how to make it a reality at that point in time. But I think if you keep that dream in your mind and the desire in your heart, eventually something will click—and you’ll figure out how to do it. You want answers right away, but sometimes answers come later, with experience.

Have you found that in both business and extreme adventures, overcoming fear is a necessary step?

I think the fear of failure really holds people back. In general we’re not a very failure-tolerant society. Type-A personalities who are used to working hard and overachieving often have a fear of failure, which is made worse by social media now because any failure could become very public. We need to be more failure-tolerant of ourselves and of those around us, because a lack of that tolerance stifles progress and innovation and prevents people from taking risks. So it’s not necessarily fear of the risk itself that holds people back—it’s the fear of failure.

You’ve become a student of leadership. Where have you learned most about it?

I’ve had a number of mentors who have helped me learn a lot about leadership. These are mentors who I’ve worked with in the mountains, the business world and mentors I’ve been lucky enough to cross paths with at West Point. I served for several years as an adjunct faculty member at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in the department of behavioral sciences and leadership.

West Point is one of the most amazing think tanks in the world when it comes to leadership development. I currently work with the Thayer Leader Development Group. It’s a program that shares West Point leadership best practices with corporate executives. We have mid- to senior-level managers come through our program to learn about leadership “the West Point way.”

Is there commonly one thing that’s missing when leadership is bad?

Toxic leadership can come in a variety of forms but basically when leadership is bad, it’s because the leaders aren’t putting themselves in the shoes of the people they’re leading. People want to know that their leaders have as much skin in the game as they do.

I write about this in my book. There’s a chapter on the military mindset that “leaders eat last.” In the military, privates (the lower ranking soldiers) eat first, followed by the noncomissioned officers (NCOs). The commissioned officers are fed after the NCOs, and then finally the commanding officers. The people at the top of the chain of command don’t take care of themselves until all of their people are taken care of.

There are many factors that influence the success of a leader, but leaders that put their people first will build the trust and loyalty that is required to effectively lead.

Do you often see women who aren’t maximizing their leadership potential or opportunities?

I see a lot of women killing it out there, who are taking advantage of their opportunities and are not afraid to go after what they want with every ounce of determination they have. But there are also women who still aren’t assertive enough because they worry about how they will be perceived. Women have to get beyond that fear of being perceived negatively—as being pushy or bossy—just because they’re assertive, strong and ambitious, because more than anything else, people are judged on their level of competence. That’s the Number 1 most important factor in becoming a leader and succeeding. You have to have what it takes to do the job and do it well. If you can demonstrate your competence, others will respect you and you can develop the trust and loyalty among the people on your team. That’s what defines you as a leader.

Do you feel like your life is too tame now? Do you get itchy to climb or trek?

I’m still climbing; I haven’t given it up and don’t plan to anytime soon. 2014 is dedicated to the book tour. I promised my publisher I’d focus on the book this year. But I did squeeze in a short climb in May when I was in Australia.

In 2005, you founded the Climb High Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to training African women to be trekking guides and porters. Are you still working with it?

I am. I was in Uganda last summer in the Rwenzori Mountains. We took a number of women up Mt. Stanley. They continue to work and earn a sustainable living wage and are thriving in their communities.

What more do you want to achieve?

I would love to go back and climb in the Himalaya. Nepal just issued permits for dozens of mountains which were previously not open to climbers, so I would love to do a first ascent on one of those. And I’ve never climbed in India, so that’s something I’d like to do as well. There are still a lot of mountains on my list. I don’t feel I’m finished yet.