A Q&A with Alison Levine
December 10, 2014
Alison Levine—adventurer, explorer, and mountaineer—answers some of our questions about leadership on On the Edge.
"When I was younger I was absolutely fascinated by the stories of the early polar explorers and mountaineers. I would read books and watch documentary films about these adventurers and felt a need to dive deeper and deeper into their world. I could never seem to satisfy my thirst for knowledge when it came to these expeditions. Well...I had my second heart surgery when I turned thirty (I had a third when I was forty-four) and eighteen months later the light bulb went on and I thought, 'If I really want to know what it's like to be out there in these environments, then instead of reading books and watching movies I should get out there and experience it.'"
We started yesterday with our General Manager Sally Haldorson's review of On the Edge. She was a big proponent of the book when it came out in January, and had a moment of rediscovery when she revisited it for our Business Book Awards reading. That prompted her to write up the following questions for Alison Levine, which she was kind enough to answer for us.
Our Q&A with Alison Levine
From the introduction and a journal entry for May 23rd: "Winds are howling and it is snowing and visibility is sh*t. But we are already burning up our oxygen supply, so we need to make a move, and we have already been up in the death zone for more than twenty-four hours, which means our bodies and our brain cells are deteriorating."
This is one of many descriptions of your experiences adventure climbing that made me ask myself: why does anyone do this? Why Everest? Why put your body through this? So I guess that my first question is a somewhat broad one: Why?
When I was younger I was absolutely fascinated by the stories of the early polar explores and mountaineers. I would read books and watch documentary films about these adventurers and felt a need to dive deeper and deeper into their world. I could never seem to satisfy my thirst for knowledge when it came to these expeditions. Well...I had my second heart surgery when I turned thirty (I had a third when I was forty-four) and eighteen months later the light bulb went on and I thought, "If I really want to know what it's like to be out there in these environments, then instead of reading books and watching movies I should get out there and experience it. Of course I didn't just pack my bags and head to Everest that next weekend. I started out on much smaller, less demanding mountains and spent years building the skills I would need to tackle an 8000-meter peak.
If people wonder how being an adventure climber intersects with being a great leader, you are pretty clear about the synergy: "The leadership principles that apply in extreme adventure sports also apply in today's extreme business environments. Both settings require you to be able to make crucial decisions on the spot when the conditions around you are far from perfect. Your survival—and the survival of your team—depends on it."
Ever since I read your book earlier this year, I've particularly remembered the lesson in Chapter 2 which teaches "Why Backward is Often the Right Direction" because I have tended to think forward progress is the only progress that matters. I found this insight to be perspective-changing, and comforting, so could you summarize that lesson for our readers and how one can apply it to his or her work?
I hear from a lot of readers who said this chapter really changed their perspective as well. Everest is not a straight-forward climb. Far from it. You spend ten days hiking just to get yourself to basecamp. Once you get to basecamp you spend a few days there to get used to elevation because it's over 17,000 ft. After a few days you pack up your gear to start moving up the mountain. There are several camps along the route to the summit...but you don't just climb straight up the mountain. You have to come back down to basecamp after you reach each camp along the way (up until your summit bid). What I mean by this is that you climb to camp 1 at 20,000 ft, and then you climb back down to base camp the following day. You spend a few days at base camp again and then you climb to camp 1 a second time, and then up to camp 2 where you spend the night at 21,500 ft. The next day you climb back down to base camp again. After spending a few more days at base camp you repeat the whole thing—up to camp 1 for a night, then on to camp 2 for a night, and then you fight like hell to get yourself up to camp 3 which sits at close to 24,000 ft...and then the next day you retreat all the way back down.
The reason you have to keep coming back down to basecamp is because you have to let your body get used to the altitude slowly; it's a process called acclimatization and it helps your body adjust to the changes in atmospheric pressure. Your body deteriorates as it gets to the higher elevations and coming back down to a lower camp (ideally below 18,000 ft) is the only way to rebuild and/or maintain your strength. So not only is it very physically challenging to be climbing back down to base camp all the time, but it's also very psychologically challenging because you're spending a heck of a lot of time climbing in the downward direction. The important thing here is to realize that even though you are going completely backwards (in a direction that feels like it's pulling you away from your goal)—you're still making progress—because you're helping your body acclimatize.
As far as how it applies to work: There will be many times when you don't get the job you wanted or you get passed over for a promotion. You might even get stuck on a project that you feel is "beneath you" or you're put in a position that feels like a demotion. Maybe you get transferred to a different division and it's not what you wanted and is not what you envisioned for your career. You feel like you're not moving in the right direction and you're not progressing. But you should not look at backtracking as losing ground! Look at it as an opportunity to regroup/regain some strength so that you're better out of the gates the next time around. Backing up is not the same as backing down (damn...I wish I had thought of that line when I was writing that chapter!).
"You should not look at backtracking as losing ground! Look at it as an opportunity to regroup/regain some strength so that you're better out of the gates the next time around. Backing up is not the same as backing down."
Teamwork is a big requirement for adventure climbing; not only does the quality of your own team ensure your safety, and hopefully, your success, but you must work together with other teams on the mountain, sometimes folks you don't actually know, to keep you alive. You tell the story of David Sharp, who died on the mountain in 2006, and his story became somewhat well-known as it was captured on television. There were accusations that other climbers and teams did not make an effort to save him, but others concluded that leaving him was actually the smart decision because the safety of everyone was more critical than the saving of one person.
There are several different questions I could ask regarding this story (which is one of the reasons I love your book): what is the biology of a team and how does that entity work in concert with other such teams? How does such an impossible decision—whether to leave someone to die due to the elements and their own decisions—apply to business decision making? But I think we'll go with: how might smart networking have saved David Sharp's life?
The chapter that deals with rescues on the mountain definitely contains the most controversial subject matter. The people who passed by David Sharp as he lay dying had differing reasons for not helping him. Some mistook him for a corpse that had been in that location for a number of years, others thought David was just stopping for a rest and did not realize he was in distress. It's easy for armchair mountaineers to say, "If I had been walking by I know I would have saved him." But the reality is that unless you were there at the time, you don't know. There are so many factors that come into play when it comes to whether or not someone can be brought down from the mountain. Where/how high up on the mountain are they? What are their vital signs? Can they stand on their own? But regardless of the answers to these basic questions, the one thing that always stacks a deck in a climber's favor: knowing the people around them. If someone who knew David saw him sitting under that rock, they would have stopped to see how he was doing, and presumably would have realized that he was in serious condition. Sharp was climbing on his own that day. He had no Sherpa support and no radio. No one recognized him. You just never know when you're going to be in a situation where you need the help of those around you; that's why it's important to build a strong network.
Chapter 9 implores us to "Ignore the Rules" and "Do the Right Thing. Always." How do these two somewhat divergent guidelines work together? And, in extension, how is "Rigidity...just as dangerous as complacency?"
There are always going to be situations where rules need to be broken for the good of the team. Following your moral compass should always trump following rules. Whoever wrote the rulebook could not possibly have predicted every insane scenario that a team might find itself in, so falling back on altruism and doing the honorable thing is the way to go vs. simply relying on the rules. And as far as rigidity goes, it's a total innovation-killer. "We've always done things this way" or "This has always worked for us in the past" are phrases that discourage risk-taking.
You write, in Chapter 10, titled "Your Three Words:"
"I aspire to be the clutch player—the person who others can always count on. I want to be the go-to person when my loved ones or colleagues or teammates need help. I want others to think of me as the person who always follows through on a commitment. I will never let you down when I tell you I am going to give you my all."
How can a mantra—yours is Count on me—help individuals focus their work, and, as a leader, how can I inspire the members of my team to reflect on and form their own mantra?
A personal mantra is important because it helps the people on your team understand the type of leader you are and speaks to what is important to you. A mantra (or credo) also helps others understand your expectations. So mine is Count on me. I will come through when I commit to something. If I tell you I will deliver a set of answers to your interview questions before the start of business tomorrow morning then I will get them to you, even if I have to stay up until 3am to get it done (and it's 2:48am as I type this). People know I will go to the mat for them, and therefore they are much more likely to do so for me, and that makes the whole team more invested and helps to build trust and loyalty among team members .
If there is one thing you'd like readers to not only remember, but apply, from On the Edge, what would that be?
The one thing I hope people remember is that the top of a mountain (literal or figurative) is just not all that important. It really isn't. Reaching a summit doesn't change you or make the world a better place. What's important are the lessons you learn along the way, and what you're going to do with that information to be better going forward...because there will always be more mountains to climb.
"The one thing I hope people remember is that the top of a mountain (literal or figurative) is just not all that important. It really isn't. Reaching a summit doesn't change you or make the world a better place. What's important are the lessons you learn along the way ... "