Category Archives: NEWS ARCHIVES

Sweden with Love: Got Fear? Meet Alison Levine

Dec 15, 2014


Mount Everest is its own mythical world with daredevil mountaineers, merciless temperatures, unpredictable avalanches and ferocious storms. At the two base camps you’ll find anticipation and fear: for every 13 climbers who reach the summit (29,035 feet above sea level), about two die along the way.

But you’ll also find the possibility of greatness — as in 2002, when the first American Women’s Everest Expedition arrived at the south base camp in Nepal. The team, lead by mountaineer and polar explorer Alison Levine, had more than 450 media outlets covering their every move. CNN conducted live updates from the mountain. The Discovery Channel live-blogged the climb, a first at the time. The Ford Motor Company sponsored the expedition, estimated at $75,000 per climber. But less than 300 feet from the summit, a storm came in and the team was forced to turn around. The failure was devastating.

Eight years later, at age 44, Alison made a second attempt and got to the top. In between, she had climbed the highest peaks on every continent and skied to both the North and South Poles. By finally reaching the summit of Mount Everest, she became one of the few people in the world to have completed the Last Degree Adventurers Grand Slam.

As a climber, Alison was born with the cards stacked against her. Since childhood, she suffered from Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome, a serious heart condition that can lead to cardiac arrest. After being rushed to the emergency room more than a dozen times in her late teens and 20s, she finally had successful surgery at age 30. Eighteen months later, she bought a pair of climbing boots, borrowed a jacket and backpack and flew to Africa — by herself — to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

Boldness and a sense of adventure are great assets: Alison has both in spades. But she also knows how to put them in to action, living her life with a daring beauty. For this month’s Gutsy!, Alison — author of theNew York Times bestseller On The Edge: The Art of High-Impact Leadership — teaches us the importance of failure, and why we need to push ourselves beyond our limits. • Ulrica Wihlborg


Alison by the Geneve spur, above Camp III, on Mount Everest..

Ulrica: Eighteen months after you had surgery to correct your heart condition, at age 30, you flew by yourself to Africa to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. That is pretty crazy!

Alison: I had always been intrigued by explorers since I was a child, so when I finally had successful surgery I thought, ‘Now that I’m healthy, what’s stopping me?’ I can’t just sit here and read about things, I have to do them myself! I bought my own hiking boots, because they have to fit you perfectly, but everything else I borrowed from my jacket to my backpack.

Ulrica: How did that first climb change your life? You had lead a pretty ‘normal’ life until then.

Alison: Even though that mountain is not that demanding — it’s a very long, challenging walk — it’s where I found what I call ‘that voice inside of you that talks to you when you doubt yourself.’ I remember I was up on that mountain and it was summit day. I felt terribly exhausted. I’d never put myself through anything like that before, and I was convinced I couldn’t take one more step. Not even one! I was at my limit. And suddenly, I heard a voice inside of me that said, ‘Yes, you can. You can take one more step.’ It was louder than my doubts and fears and it changed my life.


Ulrica: By pushing yourself to your absolute limit, you discovered you had more in you than you thought. Why is that important?

Alison: I think a lot of us never hear that voice, because we never put ourselves in a position where we need it. But if you never put yourself in that place — a place where you think you’ve reached your limit — you’ll never learn where your limits are. You’ll never learn to push yourself past that point of discomfort. It doesn’t have to be about climbing mountains or anything physical. But if you never give that voice a chance, you might never know your own greatness. And that’s when you limit yourself and your life.


Alison (in the middle) on The Hillary Step, a nearly vertical rock face about 40 ft high on Mount Everest. Located approximately 28,840 feet above sea level, it’s the last real challenge before reaching the top of the mountain via the South East route.

Alison: A lot of it has to do with fear of failure. It’s not about our own fear of failure, it’s fear what other people will think about is if we fail. If no one ever knew we failed, who cares, right? But what prevents people from pushing themselves to their limits, or taking risks where failure is a real possibility, is that they’re scared other people will see them as failures. They’re scared they’ll be judged in a negative light. And today, with social media, it’s even worse. Social media gives us an even greater fear of failure, and that’s a huge drawback.


At the Mount Everest base camp before heading up.

Ulrica: You experienced a very public failure in 2002, when you got less than 300 feet from the summit of Mount Everest.

Alison: We were on the Today Show, CBS Evening News, Entertainment Tonight…you name it! CNN was doing live updates from the mountain. Ford sponsored us. So to miss the summit by less than 300 feet…that was failing in a big way. I had to come back to the U.S. and have Ann Curry ask me why I failed. I had to tell everyone about it, because that’s what everyone wanted to talk about. I know it was because of bad weather and we couldn’t have done anything about it, but it was still very hard.


Ulrica: How did that affect you?

Alison: I was the team captain, and I felt I let everyone down. I was worried about what people were saying, and how it would affect my future. Would anyone want to climb with me again? Would I be able to go on another expedition? I experienced a couple of months of severe depression. Everyone wanted to talk about that day when we had to turn back on Mount Everest. People would introduce me at dinner parties that way. I had put so much into it, and I had failed.

Ulrica: What’s the lesson you learned about failure?

Alison: The reason situations are uncomfortable is because they teach us to be more accepting of failure. I had to accept that I had failed. It’s not bad, it’s actually good. Learning to be okay with failure is the important lesson. We’re not a very failure tolerant society, and that prevents people from taking risks. But look at people who make things happen, who change the world, who are successful. They’re not the ones who never take risks. The often fail over and over again. They almost never have a perfect track record.

Ulrica: So failure is good?

Alison: It’s the people who have been bruised and kicked down and have failed repeatedly who are paving the road. So you know what we need to say to our fear of failure? Who cares! Give yourself the freedom to fail. And encourage other people to take risks, even if they’ll fail. Because those failures are what we’ll build on, and which will allow us to be successful.


Alison at the Khumbu Icefall on Mount Everest at 17,999 feet. The icefall is considered one of the most dangerous stages of the route to the Everest summit. The Khumbu glacier that forms the icefall moves at such speed that large crevasses open with little warning. 

Ulrica: You gave yourself the freedom to fail, again, when you went back to Mount Everest in 2010.

Alison: Yes, it took me that long before I had the guts to go back. I felt so much pressure. It wasn’t easy for me. I thought, what if I don’t get to the top again? But in the end, what overshadowed my fear was the thought of never trying again. I didn’t want to have to ask myself for the rest of my life if I could’ve made it. And that first failure was partially what made me succeed the second time.


Alison and her team on Mount Everest, South Summit.

Ulrica: Why is that?

Alison: That second time, I found myself in the same situation. I was yet again only a few hundred feet away from the summit, and a very bad storm moved in. I thought, ‘Great, here I am, eight years later, and a storm comes in!’ But even though the situation was similar, I was not. I knew a lot more about my risk tolerance and my pain threshold. If I hadn’t had that failed experience in 2002, I’m sure I would’ve turned around. Coming back alive is always your number one priority, but I felt it was a storm I could stare down.

Ulrica: Were you scared?

Alison: It was very scary and uncomfortable, but I had done scary and uncomfortable before. I went back to that voice in my head, ‘Take one more step, then one more after that.’ I had first found that voice on Mount Kilimanjaro, but that voice had gone dark on me. Here, I found it again and it gave me the strength to go on. At the end of the day, no matter your situation, it’s really just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other relentlessly. It’s not the best climbers who get to the top, it’s the people who are relentless.


Alison training trekking guides for her Climb High Foundation in Uganda.

Ulrica: Do you ever struggle with the question of your life’s purpose?

Alison: I have a significant other, but we’re not married and we don’t have any kids. I’ve always felt this draw to the mountains, but I could never really figure out why. I asked myself for years, why do I do this? Why do I put so much blood, sweat and tears into this? What do I have to show for it? Then I went on an expedition to the Rwenzori Mountains, which borders Uganda, and met so many women who had no way of supporting their families other than prostitution. Most of these women are single mothers and they’re destitute. I trained one of the women as a trekking guide, and I ended up starting a non-profit (the Climb High Foundation) that trains and enables these women to make a living wage by being trekking guides on the mountain. For me, that’s my purpose. I figured out a way for my climbing skills to have a positive impact on the world. I believe if you’re going to put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into something, make sure you’re happy with the effect it has on the world around you.


Sunset at the Mount Everest base camp.

• By Ulrica Wihlborg

To learn more about Alison and the Climb High Foundation, go to her website, follow her on Twitter and check out her book, the New York Times bestseller On The Edge: The Art of High-Impact Leadership.

All photographs courtesy of Alison Levine ©2014.

Fortune Best Business Books for Leaders

Required Reading: The MBA List

by Shalene Gupta  Nov. 13, 2014

Here’s what today’s business school students are taking to class.

Never went to B-school or don’t have time for a ­semester-long refresher course? Neither do we. Instead, Fortune reached out to top business schools to find out which books their professors have added to the fall syllabus. The titles range from an analytical look at the health care industry to an explainer on big data—and are all recent publications. Here are five texts that will help you get up to speed with the next generation of talent.

Scaling Up Excellence by Robert Sutton and Huggy Rao


Stanford professors Sutton and Rao -tackle one of business’s -biggest challenges: maintaining quality while growing quantity. The result of seven years of research, the book has been lauded by the likes of LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman. Fellow Stanford professor Margaret Ann Neale uses it as an additional resource in her classes. “It marries research with rich cases and is of use to leaders at every level,” she says. “It is chock-full of practical tips and advice.

Published 2014

Catastrophic Care: Why Everything We Think We Know About Health Care Is Wrong by David Goldhill



After Goldhill’s father died from an infection acquired at a hospital and that hospital received a huge Medicare payment, he decided to write a book about the dysfunction of the U.S. health care system. Harvard -Business School professor William Sahlman says, “He took a hard look at how health care in the U.S. differs from traditional business. He writes about the absurdity of the system.”

Published 2013

On the Edge: The Art of High-Impact Leadership by Alison Levine


Levine, a former Goldman-Sachs associate, packs her bestselling leadership book with lessons she learned scaling Everest and crossing the South Pole. Wharton professor Michael Useem includes it on his recommended reading list. “Levine helps us appreciate the preparation, determination, and decisiveness essential for moving our own teams across business terrains that sometimes also turn extreme,” he says.

Published 2014

Data Science for Business by Foster Provost and Tom Fawcett


Provost and Fawcett answer the questions, What exactly is big data? How does it work? And what can
it do for business? Professors at MIT, -Insead, and Northwestern have assigned it to students. “There is no other book on practical data science for business applications that simultaneously has as much authority and as much clarity,” says Sinan Aral, a management -professor at MIT’s Sloan. “Students cannot stop raving about this book.”

Published 2014

The Risk-Driven Business Model by Karan Girotra and Serguei Netessine


Insead business school professors Girotra and Netessine unpack risk management and explain how to make risk work for businesses. Professor Antonio Moreno-Garcia uses examples for his Operations Management class at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. “This book presents a new framework for business model innovation that helps firms change the way they do business by better managing and shifting risks,” he says.

Published 2014

Good Day LA: Mt. Everest To Boardrooms

Posted by Kelly Taylor  Nov 2, 2014

Link to Good Day LA video

Who runs the world? Alison Levine.

She is one of the few females on earth to have completed the “Adventurer Grand Slam” after reaching the top of all Seven Summits and skiing across the North and South Pole.

Levine is also wrote “On the Edge: The Art of High-Impact Leadership” which landed on the New York Times Bestseller list and is an expert on leadership and motivational speeches. She spends the majority of her time on the road traveling the country instructing everyone from major boardrooms to battlefields on what it takes to “lead” and be successful at it.

In her book, Levine writes that leadership principles in the world of extreme adventure also apply to today’s competitive business environment — finding humorous parallels between mountaineering and business.

Twitter | @Levine_Alison
Site |

USA Today: Oped About Amazon

Battle with Hachette is a war for the future of reading and writing.

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.

MindBodyGreen: 5 Things I Learned From Climbing Mt. Everest

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

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


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

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.

More Magazine: Fear Couldn’t Stop Her

 A record-setting mountaineer, Alison Levine 
now teaches business leaders the hard lessons she learned in beautiful and dangerous places

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 Leadershipwhich 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.