Oct 16, 2014
Alison Levine left her job as an investment banker, to reach a new peak, that of a mountain.
Oct 16, 2014
Alison Levine left her job as an investment banker, to reach a new peak, that of a mountain.
By Alison Levine Sept 5, 2014
By now everyone who is interested in the Amazon vs. Hachette battle has read about the feud ad nauseam. The fighting is all about e-book pricing, and both sides have come up with valid reasons why e-books should or shouldn’t be priced lower than paperbacks. Many well-known authors have weighed in on the controversy and both sides have published open letters to whichever respective behemoth CEO they’re trying to influence, as if Jeff Bezos and Michael Pietsch are going to throw in the towel because now they know that a few hundred authors are angry. Newsflash: these guys knew you would be angry, and they don’t care if you’re angry. They want to make money, and sometimes making money means doing battle. But regardless of which side of the battle you’re on — one thing that cannot be denied is that Hachette authors are feeling the pain. And they’ll continue to bleed while Amazon and Hachette duel it out over e-book pricing.
Amazon has come up with their own rationale as to why e-books should be cheaper than hard copy versions. Their argument is based on the fact that e-books should be less expensive because they’re cheaper to get into the hands of consumers; no paper costs, no printing costs, no storage costs, no shipping costs, and no inventory issues. Sounds logical, right? Wrong! While all of those things are indeed true, that argument is bogus and here’s why: saying that an e-book price should be based only on material, labor, and overhead is as ridiculous as saying that the price of a artwork should be based only on the cost of the paint and the canvas. What about the artist’s blood, sweat and tears? Well, that factors into the price of the artwork too, as it should with e-books. Hachette is absorbing the costs of paying their writers an advance and getting the books into production — that means they have to pay their editorial staff, their graphics department, their legal department and a whole lot of other departments that I don’t even know about because my publisher basically takes care of everything so that I can focus on writing and not worry about anything else.
Amazon claims that they’re looking out for the best interests of readers by fighting for lower prices so that more people can afford books. Well, if Amazon wants to provide a more affordable way for people to get their hands (and eyes) on books, guess what they need to do? Nothing. Because people can already buy used books on Amazon for a few bucks – sometimes less than that.
While the e-book market might be growing, let’s not forget that people still read books in hard copy. E-books make up roughly 30% of book sales, so it’s not like hard copy has gone the way of the dinosaur. And since many self-published books are released only as e-books with no hardcopy available, this throws off the statistics as far as what percentage of readers prefer electronic vs paper. For my book — which is available in hardcopy, e-book and audio — e-books only make up about 7% of my sales.
Will the print book go away at some point? I don’t know. I hope not. People like the feel of printed books and the smell of the pages. People like to take notes in the margins. And perhaps best of all — people like to pass them along to friends or pass them down to younger generations of the family as keepsakes. Readers go to book-signings and wait in line for hours because they want to meet an author they admire and have them sign the title page of their favorite book. This is all part of the human side of both being a reader and being an author who enjoys reaching out to readers and feeling that human connection through live interaction. We want to meet the people who buy our work and we want to look them in the eye and shake their hands and thank them for their interest in our thoughts, ideas and words. I, for one, do not want to give up that experience. I would bet that there are a lot of other authors who feel the same, and that’s why hardcopy books are going to stay.
As a first time author, this feud has opened my eyes to just how cutthroat the book distribution business has become. My book came out earlier this year and made theNew York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller lists. Amazon even labeled it a “best book of the month” and called it out as a “remarkable read” and listed it at the top of the page along with books by other “influential people” (their words, not mine) such as Robert Gates and Sonya Sotomayor. But alas, the love is gone. Because while my book might be a remarkable read…I am a Hachette author.
As Sylvester Stallone said in First Blood Part II, “To survive a war, you gotta become war.” Well, this is war.
Alison Levine is the bestselling author of On the Edge: The Art of High Impact Leadership.
By Alison Levine Aug 29, 2014
Everyone has their mountains to climb. Most people’s are figurative, but mine are literal. I started climbing mountains in 1996 — about 18 months after my second heart surgery to correct a congenital heart defect called Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome — and I haven’t stopped.
I have since served as the team captain of the first American Women’s Everest Expedition, climbed the highest peak on every continent (known as the “seven Summits’), and skied to both the North and South Poles, an accomplishment known as the Adventure Grand Slam.
In my book, On The Edge: The Art of High-Impact Leadership, I share advice about how to weather the storms without losing your way. Here are five things I learned from climbing that can be applied to any difficult situation:
1. Everything you need to survive can be carried on your back.
Once you come to realize that, it’s a pretty empowering feeling. Honestly, food, shelter clothing, that’s it — that’s all you need. Learn to live with just the basics, and then when you do have the “extras” it feels like you’re indulging, and you’ll appreciate the little things a lot more.
After spending a few weeks up high on the flanks of Mt. Everest, just taking a shower down at base camp with real soap and shampoo felt like a day at a luxury spa (even though I was standing underneath a plastic tarp on a bunch of jagged rocks, and the water that was coming out of the portable shower spout had been warmed up by a burning pile of yak dung just minutes before).
2. Surround yourself with people who will look out for you and help you muster up the courage to conquer things that intimidate you.
On Everest, one of the most frightening parts of the mountain is the Khumbu Icefall, two-thousand vertical feet of massive columns of glacial ice that can shift around at any moment and come tumbling down in a gigantic ice avalanche, crushing everything in their paths. The Icefall was the scene of a tragic accident this past spring that claimed sixteen lives. In total, I have climbed through that area about fourteen times, and it never gets “less scary.”
What gives me the courage to get through it time and time again? My team: the people climbing alongside me and encouraging me and cheering me on and waiting on the trail for me so that I don’t have to approach the terrifying parts alone.
3. Find the voice.
Everyone has it. Not everyone hears it. In 2002, my team turned back just a few hundred feet from the top of Mt. Everest during a storm. We were caught in a whiteout and were forced to abandon our summit attempt.
Fast forward to 2010. I’m back on Mt. Everest and am making another attempt to reach the top. And go figure, in comes a storm again. I thought, “There is no way I can continue climbing in this weather.” But then I thought, “Well … I can take one more step.” And I did. So then I thought, “OK, just one more.” And again, I did. And then I took one more after that … and another … and another … and eventually I found myself standing on the summit.
Once you’ve summoned that inner voice that tells you that you can take that next step, you know you can call it up again whenever you need it. This is the most powerful voice of all.
4. Progress does not always mean going forward.
When you’re climbing Mt. Everest, you don’t just climb in the upward direction to get to the top. You also spend a lot of time climbing downward, back toward base camp.
Why? Because you have to let your body get used to the altitude very slowly (a process called “acclimatization”), and that means coming back to a lower elevation several times throughout the expedition so that you can regain some strength since your body starts to deteriorate at elevations above 18,000 feet.
Coming back down to base camp each time before climbing to the next higher camp can be both physically and psychologically exhausting. But it’s part of the process, so don’t look at “going backward” as losing ground. Look at it as an opportunity to re-energize so that you’re a stronger climber when you head back up the mountain again. Backing up is not the same as backing down.
5. Grit is more important than speed.
Rarely (if ever) am I the strongest, fastest climber on an expedition. But I am determined. Pain is often part of the process when you’re pushing your limits. Junko Tabei reached the summit of Mt. Everest on May 16, 1975, and became the first woman to stand on top of the 29,035 foot peak. What makes this accomplishment even more impressive is that she and her teammates were struck by an avalanche at 20,600 feet and it took six Sherpas to dig them out.
Junko was in agonizing pain after the accident and could barely walk. Yet she powered on. When commenting on her historic climb she said, “Technique and ability alone do not get you to the top — it is the willpower that is the most important. This willpower you cannot buy with money or be given by others — it rises from your heart.”
You don’t have to be the best climber to get to the top of a mountain; you just have to be relentless about putting one foot in front of the other.
Photo credit: Jake Norton
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.
By Paula Derrow
Alison Levine has been onstage for 20 minutes. Her Atlanta audience is packed with busy women execs usually loath to put down their iPhones, but everyone is looking up now. “I never thought I would try to climb Mount Everest twice, but I did it for my friend Meg,” Levine says softly, flashing a photo of a woman with a wide smile on the screen behind her. “She was an all-American soccer player. She had to stop playing after she got cancer; the chemo damaged her lungs. So she started cycling. Nothing could stop her.”
The crowd is quiet, waiting for the happy ending. But Levine reveals that Meg died of complications from the flu because of her bad lungs. “I wanted to do something to honor Meg, and the thing I’m most passionate about is climbing mountains,” she says. “I engraved her name on my ice ax to make sure she would be coming with me on my second summit attempt. And that time, I made it.” The room bursts into applause.
Levine, 48, who radiates chic in a color-blocked sheath and patent leather wedges, is one of the most booked women on the famously lucrative professional speakers’ circuit. When she’s not on the road, she lives in San Francisco with her boyfriend of five years and her dog. But it’s rare that she’s home. After Atlanta, she’s off to Los Angeles, then Denver, set to gross seven figures as she crisscrosses the country, dispensing funny, outrageous or poignant anecdotes and unconventional business advice gleaned from her experience in extreme environments. (“Practice sleep deprivation.” “Fear is healthy.”) Her way with a roomful of suits has made her a favorite with IBM, Microsoft and other corporations, places that don’t typically hire women speakers. “Women’s subject matter tends to be viewed as ‘too soft,’ ” Levine says. “My subject somehow feels testosterone infused.”
Levine is one of the few people on the planet, man or woman, who have scaled the highest peak on every continent. In 2007 she was part of a five-person team of international explorers who skied the 600-mile Messner route across Antarctica to the South Pole (and the first American to do so), lugging a loaded 150-pound sled behind her. To train, Levine tethered first one, then two, then three tires behind her with a rope, dragging them through the sand on a San Francisco beach. Still, the physical pain on the actual trip was stunning; the winds were sometimes so strong, Levine had to fight to stay on her feet, and after the first week of struggling through the knee-deep snow, she was bruised nearly everywhere on her body.
The emotional stress was worse. Because of her height—Levine was nearly a foot shorter and at least 50 pounds lighter than some of her -teammates—she couldn’t pull her sled as fast and felt terrible about holding the team back. One morning, a few of the guys lifted everyone’s sleds to feel the weight, and when they got to hers, they pronounced it much heavier than the others (although it wasn’t) and transferred some of the load to their own sleds. Knowing that they were bluffing to preserve her dignity, Levine was deeply affected. “My outlook changed,” she says. “I realized theywanted me to succeed. They taught me something about authentic leadership: Great leaders do not expect people to simply overcome weakness but instead help people find a way to compensate for that weakness.”
Levine is expert at taking anecdotes like that and spinning them into life lessons. She taught cadets at West Point and runs executive-level workshops for the Thayer Leader Development Group. In January 2014 she published her first book, On the Edge: The Art of High-Impact Leadership, which hit the best-seller list.
But her achievements didn’t come easily. Levine spent the first decade of her career in the medical-equipment industry, always excelling but with no clear goals. She was intrigued by stories of mountaineers like Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, who were the first people to summit Everest. But a heart condition—Wolff-Parkinson-White -syndrome—that brought on episodes of dangerous arrhythmia made even normal activity risky. At 30, Levine had cardiac surgery that fixed the problem, and she celebrated by climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. The experience was transformative. “I wanted to do more,” she says. She began climbing in earnest while getting her MBA at Duke University. “Every time I had a break, I’d head to the mountains,” she says. As her mountaineering skills got better, she noticed that much of what she learned—for instance, the importance of relationships—was helpful in other areas of life. “When I’m at base camp, I walk around and get to know people,” Levine says. “If, God forbid, something happens to me or one of my teammates, I want other climbers to feel obligated to help us. But they won’t always stop—unless they know you. You have to have relationships in place. It’s up to each person to make that happen.” Between climbing jaunts, Levine finished grad school and began applying for jobs on Wall Street. “I was $70,000 in debt from tuition and credit cards,” she says. “I had to earn.” After snagging a much-coveted summer internship at Goldman Sachs, she landed an associate position in the investment management division. While her heart pulled her toward the mountains, she remained behind a desk, struggling to bring in new business and “trying to not get fired,” she says with a laugh. Which is why she declined an offer to serve as team captain for the first American Women’s Everest Expedition in 2001. “I’d done six peaks by then,” she says. “This felt like more challenge than I wanted to take on.” Then 9/11 happened. “I didn’t want fear to stop me from doing what I wanted to do,” she says. She agreed to lead the trek. To make that happen, Levine had to put together a team of women climbers and raise at least $150,000. After multiple rejections from potential corporate sponsors, she began sending out proposals along with one well-used hiking boot in a cardboard box. “Whether or not you choose to fund us,” she wrote in her cover letter, “please return my boot so I can keep training.” Suddenly, people were writing back to wish her luck (and return her boot). None of them offered money, but at least she’d gotten their attention. During this time, Levine came upon a display featuring a massive Ford SUV called the Himalayan Expedition. She sent her Everest proposal to a business-school friend who worked at Ford; he helped funnel it to top managers. Finally, two months before the climb, Ford agreed to sponsor the group. Levine took eight weeks of unpaid leave from Goldman. Her team had made it to within 300 feet of the 29,035-foot summit when a sudden storm forced the climbers to turn back. “It was heartbreaking,” she says. But she absorbed another hard lesson about leadership that day. “Everest is just a pile of rocks and ice,” she says. “You can always return, but if you do something dumb, you may not have that opportunity.” After Levine’s Everest publicity blitz, her bosses at Goldman asked her to recruit new employees at business schools around the country. The students, who weren’t expecting a mountain-climbing dynamo in high heels, loved her presentations. For the first time, Levine realized that her knack for public speaking might give her entry into another kind of career, one in which she could earn and leave her desk at will. Over the next two years, Levine continued to hone her presentations. She left Goldman officially but became a consultant at the firm, speaking to everyone from new hires to managing directors about how the leadership skills required to survive in a grueling physical environment applied to the business world.
Aug 7, 2014
Claudia Cowan reports from Corte Madera, California about the revenue battle with Amazon. Alison Levine is a featured author in the report.
BY YAHOO SMALL BUSINESS
There is no shortage of leadership books written by presidents, politicians, CEOs, psychologists, military heroes, and executive coaches. I am none of the above. My take on leadership comes primarily from my experiences as a high-altitude mountaineer and polar explorer. In addition to serving as the team captain of the first American Women’s Everest Expedition, I have climbed the highest peak on every continent (the famed “Seven Summits”) and have skied to both the North and South Poles, an achievement known as the Adventure Grand Slam. 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 also spent two decades in the business world (including three years at Goldman Sachs) and have worked for Fortune 500 companies as well as start-ups, so I understand the pressures that go along with high stress jobs in today’s economy.
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 I know the challenges that leaders face when it comes to managing risk and dealing with the uncontrollable. Throughout the past two decades I learned some critical survival skills and have had experiences that have shaped my views when it comes to creating cohesive teams, taking responsible risks and developing no-nonsense leaders that can succeed in times of uncertainty. Whether climbing Everest or the corporate ladder, the requirements for success are strikingly similar, and there’s no better training ground for leaders than high-stakes settings that push them beyond their limits.
In my book On the Edge: The Art of High-Impact Leadership, I share my advice on how to navigate life’s toughest terrain. Here are six take-aways that’ll help you scale whatever big peaks you aspire to climb—be they literal or figurative:
1. Learn the art of Improvisation . 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, because complacencywill kill you.
2. Practice sleep deprivation
It’s not usual on expeditions for climbers to have to push themselves for 20 or more hours with no sleep, and I find there is a lot of anxiety associated with that. Sometimes in business, you’ll need to pull an all-nighter to finish a project in time. My philosophy is that people should practice sleep deprivation, so that when you have to do it, you know what it feels like, and you aren’t anxious about it. You know you can perform on minimal or zero sleep if you’re used to doing it. If your team is counting on your to deliver – then deliver. Even if it means you have to push through the entire night. Learning to function with no sleep/food is key. Is it healthy to go without sleep and food? No, of course it isn’t healthy! But I didn’t write a book about how to live to be 100; I wrote a book about how to get through the toughest of times when your team is counting on you.
3. Embrace *ssholes.
Not literally of course. I don’t want you going up and trying to bear hug your co-workers rear-end. Here’s where I am going with this: We all know that diversity in the workforce is a plus and that diverse teams breed stronger results, right? And therefore we want everyone to embrace people who are different in terms of ethnicity, skin color, religion, sexual orientation, gender, etc. But when it comes to personalities, we aren’t as quick to embrace people who aren’t like us and don’t behave like we do. Some people are just *ssholes. But if they are exceptional performers, you need to try to embrace them. The key is getting to know these people as individuals in order to find out what makes them the way they are. Once you understand them better, you can figure out how to get the most out of them. But I want to emphasize that these people need to perform really well. You can either be a strong performer and an *sshole, or you can be mediocre and really nice. But you cannot be a mediocre *sshole, because no one will put up with you.
4. Surround yourself with big egos . Coach K from Duke University—who happens to be the winningest coach in the history of men’s Division I college basketball and the head coach of the US men’s Olympic basketball team—gave me some of the best recruiting advice ever when he was describing what he looked for when he was choosing the players to represent the United States at the Olympic Games: “Look for people with strong egos. You want people who are good, and who know that they’re good.” This is sound advice because you don’t want to be stuck at the bottom of the Hillary Step at 28,700 feet on Mt. Everest behind someone who is thinking, “Gosh, I don’t know…Maybe I shouldn’t be climbing this mountain…Maybe I am out of my league here?” You want to be with people who are thinking, “Hell, I got this!”
Be more failure-tolerant.
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 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 what they set out to achieve. 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. Someone is going to find a cure for cancer soon. Everyone will know that person’s name. But there are a gazillion scientists and researchers who are busting their asses every day and are laying the groundwork for others right now. Let’s give it up for those people too, okay?
Alison Levine is a history-making polar explorer and mountaineer who also spent two decades in the business world; including three years at Goldman Sachs. She currently works with the Thayer Leader Development Group at West Point and is the author of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller On the Edge: The Art of High-Impact Leadership.
In 2011, Alison Levine addressed the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Her talk dealt with leadership skills she grasped — while climbing mountains. Levine, who stands 5 feet 4 inches and weighs 100 pounds, might not look brawny enough to climb peaks.
So a conference participant asked her: “What did your mother say when you told her you were going to climb Everest?”
“She said, ‘Take a coat.'”
Levine abided with insulated jackets — and proceeded to scale not only Asia’s Mount Everest, but also the highest mountains on six other continents.
She topped that off by skiing to the North and South Poles.
It’s called the Adventure Grand Slam, and only 40 people have pulled it off. Making it more remarkable, she overcame two serious illnesses in her quest.
Levine suffered from a heart defect that was diagnosed when she was 17. A new surgical technique cured the problem in 1996 — at age 30 — two years before she climbed her first major peak.
She dismisses the heart problem the same way she shrugs off her battle with Raynaud’s disease, diagnosed when she was 20. That limits blood flow to the skin — and mountainlike cold makes it worse.
“I’ve learned how to manage it,” Levine, 47, told IBD.
As she describes in her new book, “On the Edge: The Art of High-Impact Leadership,” her illnesses helped push her up the mountain.
While growing up in Phoenix, Levine became an avid reader drawn to the biographies of climbers and Arctic explorers.
“After my second surgery, the light bulb went off,” she said. “If I wanted to know how Edmund Hillary and Reinhold Messner did it, I’d have to get on the mountain.”
In 1998, just as she was about to start an MBA program at Duke University (she got her degree in 2000), she headed for Tanzania and Mount Kilimanjaro, hired a guide and headed for the top. It was as easy as that, she explains.
Kilimanjaro requires no technical climbing skills — only stamina — to reach the top, which sits 19,000-plus feet above sea level.
So she says: “All kinds of guides and porters are at the base of the mountain waiting to be hired. So it’s a pretty common practice. And for a few hundred dollars you can get someone to take you up.”
The experience awakened Levine: “I had to borrow a fleece jacket, a backpack. I didn’t own anything except a pair of hiking boots. I learned so much about myself on that trip. First of all, everything I need to get by I could fit in a backpack. You really don’t need much in life to survive.
“It’s a really empowering feeling to know you can survive up on a mountain with just the stuff you can carry on your back. Also, it was the first time I tested myself physically, where I was in a situation where I was cold, tired and had an altitude headache. I felt really crappy and thought there is no way I can keep going. And then you just take one step and then you take one more step and then you take one more step. After that you realize, even if you feel like absolute hell, if you have the determination, you can keep going. You just put one foot in front of the other and you take it one step at a time.”
Levine has always been a pioneer. After college she worked in the medical device and pharmaceutical industry in America and Asia — Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. She was such an anomaly as a woman in the field, she got letters addressed to Mr. Alison Levine.
After landing her business degree, she joined Goldman Sachs in the Bay Area, and the firm gave her time off to do her climbing.
She attributes part of her climbing success to willpower. “But,” she underscored, “sheer desire accompanied by a lack of preparation is often a deadly concoction up there.”
It would be nice to say Levine had a post-Kilimanjaro epiphany that inspired her onward. Not so. “I was never inspired to complete the Grand Slam,” she said. “It just sort of happened, believe it or not. But it was never a goal.”
As for the Adventure Grand Slam itself, it’s not official. The title is an honorific, though 7summits.com lists the people who have accomplished the climbs.
Preparing for her polar expeditions — North in 2004, South in 2008 — she harnessed herself to truck tires and pulled them through the sand at Bay Area beaches. That simulated the tug of supply sleds in the Arctic.
For mountain climbs, she mastered Mount Shasta near her Bay Area home. Her routine was grueling, hiking up and down its 14,000 feet in one shot. “I wanted to practice running on empty so that my body and my mind would know what that felt like and I wouldn’t feel uneasy about it if I were on Everest,” she said.
Levine followed Kilimanjaro with ascents of Europe’s Elbrus in 1998, New Guinea’s Carstensz Pyramid in 1999 and Argentina’s Aconcagua (also in 1999), Alaska’s McKinley in 2000 and Antarctica’s Vinson Massif in 2001.
By then she was a titan among female climbers, with some asking her to captain an all-women’s expedition to scale Everest — her seventh continental peak.
The first hurdle Levine faced in the quest to reach Earth’s highest peak was to find financing. The cost was $30,000 per person, so she called and wrote corporations for backing.
Coming through was Ford (F), which was introducing an SUV called the Himalayan Expedition.
That worked out well, since she was also negotiating with Chevrolet and its SUV called Avalanche.
In 2002, Levine and the five other women went up Everest, only to turn back in the thick of brutal weather 200 feet from the summit.
Eight years later she headed back up Everest — and made it all the way. Teamwork was crucial, as always. Levine points to her skiing in West Antarctica in 2008. She was part of an international team that traversed six weeks and reached the South Pole.
All For One
“If something happens in Antarctica, it can be weeks — even longer — before rescues take place,” she said. “That’s why it was so smart of our leader, Eric Philips, to rotate everyone into the leadership position at the front of the line, navigating by compass and GPS. Because of that experience, if something had happened to Eric, the team would have been able to carry on.”
When retired Army Brig. Gen. Thomas Kolditz ran the Behavioral Science Department at West Point, he invited Levine to lecture cadets in 1986. Then five years ago “she called me one day and said she needed my help,” he said. “She wanted to enlist in the Army and was six months too old. She was inspired by the sacrifice of our soldiers, and asked if I could figure out a way to get a waiver.”
He told her she could serve in another way and appointed her an adjunct professor at the U.S. Military Academy. “She increased the frequency of her leadership classes,” he said. “That was her way of giving back to the Army. It’s a pretty impressive story.”
He also recommended her to Karen Kuhla, director of education for the Thayer Leadership Development Group, a consultancy funded by several West Point grads.
Already familiar with Levine’s achievements, Kuhla appointed her to the Thayer faculty — then her to the company’s board.
What impressed her was Levine’s fresh approach. “Every time I’ve heard her speak,” said Kuhla, “I pick up something new.”