Alison Levine, a general session speaker at ICBA LIVE 2020, has dedicated her life to sharing the lessons she’s learned while reaching the tallest, and often most dangerous, points on the planet.
By Eric Best
Near the top of Mount Everest, a single step requires at least five breaths. The desolate peak’s freezing temperatures—even in the summer, the summit is minus two degrees Fahrenheit on average, before wind chill—and high altitude can be deadly to climbers. As their lungs struggle to fill with air, the cells in their bodies begin to break down and die.
In 2002, Alison Levine found herself in this “death zone,” an area that awaits climbers five miles up on the mountain, yet 3,000 vertical feet from its top—the highest point on earth. As the captain of the first American Women’s Everest Expedition, it was her job to get the group of experienced climbers to the summit and then, most importantly, to get them back down alive. Here, the altitude complicates sleeping or eating, so the climbers didn’t slow down. With the trail ahead lit by a lamp fixed onto her gear, Levine and her team climbed through the night to the summit.
By the morning, they hit the mountain’s south summit, only a few hundred feet from the true summit, which is an area the size of a dining room table. Yet, their worst fears were realized. They were hit by a storm, which slashed their visibility and put their lives in jeopardy. Levine had a tough decision to make. If they went for the true summit, all their hard work would pay off. But they also risked plummeting 8,000 feet on one side of the trail or 10,000 feet on the other.
Being the first American women’s expedition team of its kind to attempt the summit, there was enormous pressure to make it to the top. Yet, Levine and her team turned around and went back down.
That moment proved to be one of the most valuable lessons Levine has ever learned. “Be ready to change direction when the environment changes,” she says. “Because while planning is really important, you need to remember that your plan is outdated as soon as it’s finished. If you want to survive, you need to be able to take action based on the situation, not based on your plan.”
If you want to survive, you need to be able to take action based on the situation, not based on your plan.
A hole—and a spark—in her heart
Before she climbed mountains, Levine climbed the ladder of corporate America. The Phoenix native spent the early part of her career in the pharmaceutical and medical device industries. Before the Everest summit attempt, she spent two years earning an MBA from Duke University. Then she landed a job at Goldman Sachs on Wall Street, which she decided ultimately wasn’t for her.
Beyond her meandering path professionally, Levine had found what she describes as the voice that sparked her climbing career. Levine was born with a hole in her heart or, in medical terms, an extra electrical pathway, and she was diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome. By 30, she already had two heart surgeries due to the rare, lifelong condition.
It was the pressure she needed. She would turn a longtime fascination with the world’s early explorers into a reality. If they could adventure into remote mountain regions, why not her?
And explore she did. In 1998, at age 32, Levine traveled to Tanzania to climb her first mountain, Mount Kilimanjaro. With one major summit expedition under her belt, she was then on a path toward something only a small number of people around the globe have ever completed: the Explorers Grand Slam. Doing so requires a person to ski to both the North and South Poles and climb the highest mountain on each continent, known as the Seven Summits, such as North America’s Denali and South America’s Aconcagua.
Completing the challenge would require her to go back to Everest and try to make it to the top of the world—again.
Levine’s second attempt climbing Everest cemented the lessons she learned as a mountaineer. First, while fear is normal, complacency is dangerous. She couldn’t let her fear of failure get between her and another go at the summit—a lesson that applies to business, too. “If you are going to truly embrace a spirit of innovation, you need to give yourself and your teams the freedom to fail,” she says, “because a lack of failure-tolerance stifles progress and innovation and prevents people from taking risks.”
Second, progress isn’t always straightforward; sometimes it can look like failure. To get to the top of Mount Everest, climbers must spend weeks going up and down the mountain to prepare their bodies for the ascent. “So, while it may feel like you are going in the wrong direction, you are still making progress, because you are helping your body acclimatize, which ensures that you will be stronger out of the gates for the next rotation up the mountain,” Levine says. “This is how you build strength to ensure your success going forward.”
Third, be clear on your what goal is. While reaching the summit was clearly one of her objectives, surviving was the ultimate goal. When the team made it back down alive, they gave themselves the opportunity to try again. “Backing up is not the same as backing down,” Levine often says in speeches. “You have to be able to adjust, reinvent and change direction.”
Luckily, Levine’s second attempt at Everest went differently than her first. In 2010, eight years after her first attempt, she summited Mount Everest, completing a version of the Explorers Grand Slam.
Speaking from the edge
Now a consultant and speaker, Levine travels the globe sharing her perspective, having seen the world from some of the most extreme vantage points.
Whether you’re blazing a trail on a mountain or in a community bank, Levine says that despite our best efforts to plan, there are factors we can’t always account for. Just as she and her team had to react to Everest’s unpredictable weather, community bankers also need to be able to adapt to opportunities, whether expected or unexpected.
“It’s important because your customers’ needs will change based on environmental business factors that are out of your control: the economy, regulatory affairs, the political environment, etc.,” Levine says. “All of these things can change at any point, so you have to be ready to take action regardless of what you planned for in the past.”
Ultimately, progress is what’s important. Levine says everyone has their own mountain to climb. But if you take a step forward—even if it takes several deep breaths and a lot of grit—you’ll be that much closer to your goal.
“The strategies [and] lessons I talk about apply not just to business, but to everyday life,” she says. “The struggle is different for everyone, but if we all put one foot in front of the other, we will make it up the mountain.”
3 leadership lessons from the edge
Adventurer and speaker Alison Levine shares what she’s learned from climbing the world’s tallest mountains in her bestselling book, On the Edge. Here are just a few of the leadership tips she has carried with her.
- Don’t expect things of others that you wouldn’t do yourself. “Remember that as a leader, you can never expect the people on your team to be willing to endure anything that you are not willing to endure,” she says. “When your team feels like you are willing to get out there in the trenches with them, they feel a sense of trust and loyalty.”
- Give yourself and others the freedom to fail. Sticking with a behavior or plan that doesn’t correct for the environment you find yourself in today won’t work. You and your employees must sometimes take risks. “If you are not able to adapt to the environment as it is shifting and changing,” Levine says, “you are doomed.”
- Build an ego of we, not me. Whether you’re hiring new people or putting together a climbing team, Levine suggests finding people who have “team ego.” “Teammates who have a strong sense of team ego believe that the name on the front of the uniform is more important than the name on the back of the uniform,” she says.
Eric Best is deputy editor of Independent Banker.