Explorer, Business Leader Alison Levine Gives Life Lessons on Successful Leadership
As a history-making polar explorer, mountaineer, and former Wall Street executive, Alison Levine knows what it takes to be a part of a successful team. She not only served as team captain of the first American Women’s Everest Expedition, but she 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 addition to having tackled some of the most challenging environments in the outdoors, Levine has also spent more than two decades climbing the corporate ladder. 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.
During a 45-minute speech at the Food For Thought Luncheon during the APCO International Conference & Expo last week, Levine combined humor and tales of dramatic, life-threatening situations, to provide the audience with powerful lessons on life and leadership. She gave audience members real-life applications on leadership, while interweaving stories of her treks up treacherous mountains and what lessons she learned about life and leadership.
Here are some of the key rules of leadership Levine shared with APCO International members:
- Even though you may be going backwards, you can still make progress.
“For whatever reason, we tend to think that progress has to happen in one particular direction, Levine said. “But that’s not the case sometimes. You are going to have to go backwards for a minute, in order to eventually get where you want to be. Don’t look at back-tracking as losing ground. Look at it as an opportunity to rework, regain some strength so you’re better out of the gate the next time around. Backing up is not the same as backing down. That is one of my best lines. If you’re going to write down anything, it should probably be that one.”
- Fear is okay. Complacency is not
Levine said she learned during treacherous mountain climbs that fear isn’t something leaders should shy away from. In fact, it can be embraced both in business and in life.
“Fear is okay because it’s just a normal, human emotion,” Levine said. “Complacency is what will kill you. Don’t ever beat yourself up for feeling scared or intimidated. Fear is actually a good tool. Fear keeps me awake, alert and on my toes. Fear is fine. Complacency will absolutely do you in. You have to be able to act quickly when you’re in environments where it’s changing very rapidly.”
- Build strong relationships and partnerships
“People who know you are much more likely to go out of their way for you, and potentially take on a large amount of personal risks for you, if you have good relationships,” Levine said. “So put the time and effort into networking. You never know when it’s going to pay off.”
- Leaders must do their jobs, no matter what the circumstances
“When you are in a leadership position, even when you feel like hell, you still have to get out there and do your job,” Levine said. “And guess what? Everybody on a team is in a leadership position. Leadership has nothing to do with title, tenure or how many people report to you, or how big of a budget you oversee. Leadership is about seeing to it that every person on a team has a shared responsibility to help the team move toward a goal. Everybody also has a responsibility to look out for one another.”
- Learn to deal with change (and an ever-changing environment)
Levine told the audience that one of the most stressful parts of mountain-climbing is the inability to predict the weather – within minutes everything can change. Life is the same way, but it’s how you approach change that makes the difference.
“The one thing you know about these storms is that they are always temporary,” Levine said. “There is just no such thing as storms that last forever. . . The key to surviving (storms) is that you have to be able to take action based on the situation at the time, and not based on some plan. . . Forget about being hell-bent on sticking to your plan, be focused on executing based on what’s going on at the time.”
Take Prudent Risks
Levine said successful leaders must always remember that decisions affect the entire team. “You have to think about how every single move you make is going to affect everyone around you, not just you. So no matter how much blood, sweat and tears you personally put into something, if the conditions aren’t right, you turn around, you cut your losses and you walk away. . . We all know of instances where one person’s poor judgment has brought down an entire organization.”
- Keep Climbing
Levine believes that the failure of previous climbers helped Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay become the first climbers to reach the summit of Mt. Everest in 1953. “There were dozens of people who tried and failed before those guys made it up,” Levine said. “But they had the benefit of the 411 from all of those previous expeditions.”
Levine said strong leadership means giving yourself, and your team, the freedom to fail – as long as you are better the next time around.
“In general, we’re not a very failure-tolerant society, which is really too bad because a lack of failure-tolerance really stifles progress and innovation and prevents people from taking risks.” Levine said. . . . . “Sometimes people with perfect track records are just people who’ve never really pushed themselves hard and gotten out of their comfort zone. And often it’s the people who have stumbled, who have fallen, who have been bruised and bloodied along the way, really pushing themselves so that other people can succeed down the road.”