Risk-taking and leadership

Alison Levine is an adventurer, explorer and educator. She has climbed the highest peak on every continent and served as team captain of the first American Women’s Everest Expedition. Now a New York Times best-selling author, Levine is a world-renowned speaker who lectures on creating cohesive teams, taking responsible risks, and developing leaders capable of succeeding in difficult environments. Levine is one of the keynote speakers at the NACAS Annual Conference in San Antonio. She shared some of her thoughts on leadership leading up to the conference.


Q: Tell us about your background and how it shapes your outlook on leadership and risk-taking.
A: From my various adventures I have learned that an expedition isn’t about reaching the top of some mountain—it’s about the lessons learned along the way, and what’s most important is what you do with those lessons going forward. A summit is meaningless unless it provides perspective, and I am not talking about the view from the top. I know that sometimes I am going to feel pretty beaten-up during an expedition, but as long as my face muscles still work, I can put a smile on my face and get out there and keep climbing. And just because I had a great climb during one expedition doesn’t mean I am going to have a great experience on the next one, so I approach every expedition with humility and a desire to learn from the mountain and from my teammates. Even if I feel like I did my very best on one particular mountain, I know I have to be even better on the next one.

Q: What do you hope attendees take away from your presentation at the NACAS Annual Conference?
A: Well, there are a lot of take-aways, but one that I really hope people will think about is the importance of being more failure-tolerant. We need to reward risk-takers rather than just celebrate success stories. Think of it this way: there were plenty of climbers who attempted Everest before Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, and no one knows their names. But those earlier climbers were instrumental in providing the 411 for future expeditions. If it weren’t for the climbers who tried and failed during previous expeditions, Hillary and Norgay may not have made it to the top. Who knows, really? My point is that we tend to place way too much emphasis on being the first, or achieving the most, or being “the best.” We need to start rewarding risk-takers and recognize those who have gone big – even if they’ve failed.

Q: What is the most important skill for leaders today?
A: I don’t think I could possibly narrow it down to just one. There are several. But one that is pretty high up on the list is adaptability—and this is a skill that leaders need to have and is also one they need to develop among their team members. In extreme environments, nothing is predictable, so it’s much more important to train people to think on their feet and do the right thing rather than follow whatever guidelines were in their employee manual that was printed in 1997. Sometimes doing the right thing goes against standard operating procedure. The example I use in the book shares the story of an army surgical team attempting to save the life of a soldier who had a live RPG embedded in him. I won’t spoil the ending. You’ll have to read it.

Q: NACAS members are constantly challenged to do more with less while providing excellent customer service. What’s your advice for overcoming these challenges in the workplace?
A: Empower everyone on a team to think and act like a leader, and that way everyone is pitching in to get the desired results, and no one has the “that’s not my job” attitude. Everyone needs to realize that they have an equal responsibility to help the team move toward a goal, regardless of title or tenure. Leadership cannot lie solely with one person on a team (be it the senior person or whoever). If you’re 45 days into a ski expedition across Antarctica and something happens to the designated team leader, it could be weeks before help can reach you. Therefore the rest of the team needs to be able to move forward with the mission.

Q: Our members often work closely with a diverse student population as well as members of the surrounding community and university administration. What’s your advice for creating an inclusive workplace and campus environment?
A: Make sure people know you care about them. If people know you care, this is what builds trust and loyalty. Leaders also need to be out on the front lines with their teams—this builds cohesion. No more fancy offices in separate areas of the building. On a high altitude or polar expedition, leaders carry the same amount of weight in their packs (if not more), sleep in the same tents, and eat the same food as every member of the team. In the military, same thing: no special treatment for leaders. At meal time, the lower ranks eat before the officers. It’s the “officers eat last” philosophy. The same rules should apply in business. This is how you build trust and loyalty in extreme environments. This is why the new generation of leaders like Mark Zuckerberg sit at desks out on the floor with the rest of their people.

Q: You’ve talked about taking risks. How do you know if a risk is worth it?
A: It all depends on the team—and what the potential consequences to them would be. Turning back from the summit of Mt Everest in 2002 with the first American Women’s Everest Expedition when we were oh-so-close to tagging the top was a real crusher. That decision haunted me for months. I was so worried about disappointing people—our sponsors, our friends/family and also my team. But when you are in the mountains you have to be able to make very tough decisions when the conditions around you are far from perfect. And you always put the safety of the team before anything else.


Alison Levine
Alison Levine is an adventurer, explorer and educator. She has climbed the highest peak on every continent and served as team captain of the first American Women’s Everest Expedition. Now a New York Times best-selling author, Levine is a world-renowned speaker who lectures on creating cohesive teams, taking responsible risks, and developing leaders capable of succeeding in difficult environments. Levine is one of the keynote speakers at the NACAS Annual Conference in San Antonio.

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