There is no shortage of leadership books written by presidents, politicians, CEOs, psychologists, military heroes, and executive coaches. I am none of the above. My take on leadership comes primarily from my experiences as a high-altitude mountaineer and polar explorer. In addition to serving as the team captain of the first American Women’s Everest Expedition, I have climbed the highest peak on every continent (the famed “Seven Summits”) and have skied to both the North and South Poles, an achievement known as the Adventure Grand Slam. My adventures have taken me to some of the harshest, most remote places on the planet, where determination is every bit as important as skill when it comes to survival. I have also spent two decades in the business world (including three years at Goldman Sachs) and have worked for Fortune 500 companies as well as start-ups, so I understand the pressures that go along with high stress jobs in today’s economy.
I have toughed it out in some of the world’s most dangerous and extreme environments (and I am not talking about my time on Wall Street), and I know the challenges that leaders face when it comes to managing risk and dealing with the uncontrollable. Throughout the past two decades I learned some critical survival skills and have had experiences that have shaped my views when it comes to creating cohesive teams, taking responsible risks and developing no-nonsense leaders that can succeed in times of uncertainty. Whether climbing Everest or the corporate ladder, the requirements for success are strikingly similar, and there’s no better training ground for leaders than high-stakes settings that push them beyond their limits.
In my book On the Edge: The Art of High-Impact Leadership, I share my advice on how to navigate life’s toughest terrain. Here are six take-aways that’ll help you scale whatever big peaks you aspire to climb—be they literal or figurative:
1. Learn the art of Improvisation . Improv skills are much more important than the ability to execute a plan. On a mountain, weather and route conditions will decide how you proceed, so rarely will you be able to stick to a particular plan. In business, plans are outdated as soon as they’re finished because of the breakneck pace of technology and rampant disruption, so sometimes you have to toss well laid-out plans out the window and take action based on the situation at the time rather than on the plan. You must possess the ability to act/react quickly and make tough decisions when the conditions around you are far from perfect, because complacency will kill you.
2. Practice sleep deprivation
It’s not usual on expeditions for climbers to have to push themselves for 20 or more hours with no sleep, and I find there is a lot of anxiety associated with that. Sometimes in business, you’ll need to pull an all-nighter to finish a project in time. My philosophy is that people should practice sleep deprivation, so that when you have to do it, you know what it feels like, and you aren’t anxious about it. You know you can perform on minimal or zero sleep if you’re used to doing it. If your team is counting on your to deliver – then deliver. Even if it means you have to push through the entire night. Learning to function with no sleep/food is key. Is it healthy to go without sleep and food? No, of course it isn’t healthy! But I didn’t write a book about how to live to be 100; I wrote a book about how to get through the toughest of times when your team is counting on you.
3. Embrace *ssholes.
Not literally of course. I don’t want you going up and trying to bear hug your co-workers rear-end. Here’s where I am going with this: We all know that diversity in the workforce is a plus and that diverse teams breed stronger results, right? And therefore we want everyone to embrace people who are different in terms of ethnicity, skin color, religion, sexual orientation, gender, etc. But when it comes to personalities, we aren’t as quick to embrace people who aren’t like us and don’t behave like we do. Some people are just *ssholes. But if they are exceptional performers, you need to try to embrace them. The key is getting to know these people as individuals in order to find out what makes them the way they are. Once you understand them better, you can figure out how to get the most out of them. But I want to emphasize that these people need to perform really well. You can either be a strong performer and an *sshole, or you can be mediocre and really nice. But you cannot be a mediocre *sshole, because no one will put up with you.
4. Surround yourself with big egos . Coach K from Duke University—who happens to be the winningest coach in the history of men’s Division I college basketball and the head coach of the US men’s Olympic basketball team—gave me some of the best recruiting advice ever when he was describing what he looked for when he was choosing the players to represent the United States at the Olympic Games: “Look for people with strong egos. You want people who are good, and who know that they’re good.” This is sound advice because you don’t want to be stuck at the bottom of the Hillary Step at 28,700 feet on Mt. Everest behind someone who is thinking, “Gosh, I don’t know…Maybe I shouldn’t be climbing this mountain…Maybe I am out of my league here?” You want to be with people who are thinking, “Hell, I got this!”
Be more failure-tolerant.
Reward risk-takers rather than success stories. Corporate America places way too much emphasis on being the first or achieving the most or being “the best.” Often the people with stellar resumes are people who have not pushed themselves beyond their comfort zones. Usually the people who have been battered and bloodied are the ones who are out there taking the big risks. People need to know it’s okay to fail, as long as there is value in the experience. As leaders, we need to support the people who go big, even if they don’t achieve what they set out to achieve. There were plenty of climbers who attempted Everest before Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzig Norgay, and no one knows their names. But those guys were instrumental in providing the 411 for future expeditions. Someone is going to find a cure for cancer soon. Everyone will know that person’s name. But there are a gazillion scientists and researchers who are busting their asses every day and are laying the groundwork for others right now. Let’s give it up for those people too, okay?
Alison Levine is a history-making polar explorer and mountaineer who also spent two decades in the business world; including three years at Goldman Sachs. She currently works with the Thayer Leader Development Group at West Point and is the author of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller On the Edge: The Art of High-Impact Leadership.