Alison Levine is an adventurer, explorer and mountaineer — an interesting career turn for someone with an MBA from Duke who started her career in finance. She has climbed the highest peak on every continent, lead the first American Women’s Everest Expedition and has written a best-selling book on leadership, based on her experiences leading teams in extreme environments. In an uncertain and rapidly shifting innovation environment, where leadership and teamwork are competitive necessities, I sought out Alison’s expertise on leadership, teamwork and why complacency kills.
No CEO goes it alone. What makes for a strong team? What are the traits of a good leader?
In order to build a strong team, everyone must empower themselves to think and act like a leader. Leadership cannot be left to one person with a particular title — everyone has to take it upon themselves to help the team move toward the goal, and everyone also has to look out for one another. One of the most important traits of a good leader is failure-tolerance. If you want to innovate to stay ahead of your competition, you’re going to have to take some risks. And if people are too afraid to fail, they aren’t going to be willing to take big risks. People want to know that their leader is there to support them when they stumble and fall.
What do you look for in team-mates and collaborators?
I look for people who are good, and who know that they’re good. I want teammates who are always thinking, “Don’t worry — I’ve got this!” I also look for people who will have my back.
You’ve said, “Fear won’t kill you, complacency will.” What do you mean by this?
People think of fear as a “negative” emotion, but I look at it differently. I think fear is a good thing. I have learned to use fear to my advantage. Fear keeps me awake, alert, and aware of everything going on around me. Fear is what forces me to take action. Fear only becomes dangerous when it paralyzes you. And then you are in an environment that is constantly shifting and changing, the inability to take action can most definitely kill you.
Why is improvisation an important leadership skill?
Improv is important because at the rate the business world is moving today, plans are outdated as soon as they are finished. So whatever plan you came up with last year, last month, last week — or even that morning — it’s already outdated. Forget about being hell-bent on sticking to your plan. You have to be focused on executing based on what is going on at the time. When I was in business school at Duke, they brought in some professional improve performers to teach a workshop. That seminar was more helpful to me than any academic class that I took.
You’ve shared leadership insights with a lot of audiences. What’s the one lesson that continually surprises people?
The one lesson that continually surprises people is the lesson about how we define progress. People typically think that progress means moving in one particular direction, and they look at back-tracking as losing ground. But sometimes you have to move in the opposite direction from where you want to be in order to make progress. I demonstrate this principle by showing the route on Mt. Everest and explaining how climbers don’t just climb up the mountain to each successive camp; they also climb back down to base camp in between each camp before climbing higher on the next rotation up the mountain. This process allows the body to acclimatize and become stronger so you can survive at the higher elevations.
Office environments can be pretty hazardous places to navigate. What are the biggest mistakes new employees — especially managers — make?
My career started in finance in the offices of a storied Wall Street firm, but I haven’t worked in a traditional office environment since 2004. My “office” is usually a trail or a tent. However, I think one mistake that can really affect teams is when people are too focused on achieving a goal without taking care of the people around them (the people on their team).
Risk taking is not typically rewarded in the workplace. Do we need to re-think this?
Totally. We are so focused on “success” that often we don’t want to take risks because we are afraid of failure (or we are afraid of how others will perceive us following failure). And of course in this age of social media, our failures are often made public.
What’s your motto?
COUNT ON ME. I am the person who will always come through when I tell you I am going to do something.
You’re a best-selling author and in-demand public speaker, and you’ve completed the Adventure Grand Slam. What’s next?
I am jumping into the documentary film world and am incredibly excited about it. I am currently the executive producer of a film called The Glass Ceiling which chronicles the life of Pasang Lhamu Sherpa, the first Nepali woman to climb Mt. Everest. Pasang was incredibly passionate about climbing and had been actively pursuing the sport since she was a teenager, but was denied the opportunity to climb Everest simply because she was a woman. A true trailblazer who defied political leaders, discrimination and tradition in her quest to become the first Nepali woman to summit the world’s highest peak, she shattered many barriers and was finally granted access to the mountain. She made three unsuccessful attempts at the summit and then finally achieved success on her fourth try. Sadly, she died on the descent. I was shocked to hear that her story had never been told! You can watch the trailer to get an idea of how Pasang inspired an entire nation and became a hero and role model to Nepali women and girls (and men too).