What does it take to stand on the top of the world?
Mountaineer Alison Levine, author of new book “On the Edge: The Art of High-Impact Leadership,” knows better than most. The 47-year-old MBA and former Goldman Sachs associate has conquered the highest peak on every continent, skied to both the North and South Poles, and taken on the world’s tallest mountain twice, all with a rare heart condition.
Pushing her body to the breaking point and learning to rely on herself to survive the deadliest places on Earth has taught her how to succeed under any circumstances — even the perilous slopes of Corporate America.
“The business world today is an extreme environment,” Levine tells Business Insider. “It’s a fast-paced, uncontrollable environment. You have to be able to take action and make your move based on what’s going on at the time.”
Levine reveals the most important leadership lessons she learned from climbing Mount Everest.
Practice sleep deprivation.
Sleep is a luxury at extreme altitudes. When you finally head to the summit of Everest after weeks of preparing, you hike all day, rest for a few hours, and leave for the peak in the middle of the night. Then you climb for 18 or more hours straight. Levine practices operating on limited sleep, so that when she is truly exhausted she’ll know she has the reserves to keep going.
“At the crazy pace we’re operating at today, businesspeople are getting less sleep,” she says. “And when they don’t get sleep, they get really stressed about it. But if you practice sleep deprivation, you know you can function.” Eliminating the anxiety will help you push through when you experience the inevitable sleepless night, early wake-up call, or all-nighter.
Look for teammates with big egos.
This advice first came from Mike Krzyzewski, head basketball coach for Duke University and the U.S. Olympic team, who looks for players with giant egos. He believes surrounding yourself with people who have a healthy “performance ego,” or belief in themselves — which is not to be confused with arrogance — is crucial to the team’s success.
And when you’re climbing the world’s biggest mountain, Levine says you need people “who have what it takes and know they have what it takes.” The slightest hesitance or misstep could result in serious injury or death.
Don’t let complacency kill you.
Some of the most treacherous terrain you’ll face climbing Everest comes right at the beginning: the Khumbu Icefall. The 2,000-ft. glacier is in a constant state of motion, perforated by deep crevasses and comprised of towering ice blocks that shift and collapse unexpectedly. At any moment, you could be buried by an avalanche.
In such unstable conditions, Levine says agility is the key to survival — being able to react quickly, move efficiently, and remain steady as the world shifts around you. “In our work as well as when climbing, complacency can lead to extinction, threatening our livelihoods and our lives,” she says.
Often, you have to go backwards to make progress.
Acclimatizing to Everest’s thin air is a long and frustrating but necessary process to even have a shot at reaching 29,035 feet. If you were to climb to the top, where the air holds a third of the oxygen at sea level, in one shot, you’d face certain death. Instead, you typically climb from Base Camp to Camp 1, and then back down to Base Camp. Next you go to Camp 2, down to Base Camp again, up to Camp 3, and all the way down again — in a continuous cycle of pushing higher and then descending to rest.
“We tend to think progress is defined by forward motion,” says Levine, but sometimes you have to go backwards to reach your end goal. “When you don’t get a promotion or take a job that you feel is a step down, look at it as an opportunity to review your skills, rest up, and get stronger.”
Don’t try to overcome your weaknesses.
Levine, who is 5’4″ and 108 lbs., is often hindered by her small size on extreme expeditions. She sometimes has to work twice as hard as her teammates to haul heavy equipment. But she has learned that it’s better to compensate for a weakness than waste time trying to correct it.
“I’m never going to overcome the fact that I’m small,” she says. “I can find ways to contribute where my size is an attribute.” Smart leaders learn to invest in their strengths and help others do the same, so that every member of the team is productive.
Failure is always an option.
It took Levine two attempts to summit Mount Everest. Hurricane-force winds forced her to abandon the first try in 2002. She made it the top when she tried again in 2010 at age 44. While we tend to reward people with perfect track records, she says “sometimes it’s the people who stumbled, who’ve been beaten and bruised and have taken risks that achieve the most.”
Perfection-seekers tend to play it safe. That’s why it’s important to give yourself and others room to fail, so you’re not constantly afraid of negative repercussions. “Often, those who have never failed have not pushed themselves enough,” she says.
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