All Articles Leadership Alison Levine, with leadership lessons from the highest peaks and the poles

Alison Levine, with leadership lessons from the highest peaks and the poles

3 min read


Alison Levine has climbed the highest peak on each continent, served as team captain of the 1st American Women’s Everest Expedition and has skied to both the North and South Poles. She is an adjunct instructor at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and founder of the consulting firm DareDevil Strategies TM. SmartBrief’s Elena Ziebarth followed up with her after her keynote address at the 9th Annual Fuqua School of Business & Coach K Leadership Conference.

In your speech, you emphasized that asking the right questions is a key part of leadership. What advice do you have on learning to do that well?

I like to think about the outcome I’m looking for, and then work backwards from there. Asking more questions is never going to set you back. You might annoy the hell out of someone, but no one ever died from being overly annoyed.

When you shared your experience leading the first American Women’s Everest Expedition, you noted that skills and experience only get you so far — being a team player is vital to leadership. Why is this important?

When dealing with extreme environments, it’s crucial that every team member think like a leader. And by that I mean that they must all realize that their decisions and actions affect everyone on the team. If something happens to the leader of an Antarctic expedition, the rest of the team needs to be able to execute the action plan. Rescues may be delayed by weeks or months — or may even be impossible in certain situations, so if the leader goes down, it’s up to the rest of the team to step up. You want to know that the person on either side of you is capable of helping to advance the team.

Despite all your careful preparation for the Everest expedition, your team had to turn back from the summit because of weather. When making tough choices — like turning back with the summit in sight — what does a leader need to consider?

Good leaders always think about how their actions (or inactions) are going to affect everyone else around them. Leadership in extreme environments means lives are on the line. Success is measured in terms of coming back alive — it’s not about increasing revenue, profit or market share. Poor leadership can lead to consequences from which a person or team cannot recover. Learning from failure (your own and other people’s) is one of the most important parts of becoming an effective leader. I don’t consider not tagging the top of a mountain a failure. I consider coming home from an expedition in a body bag a failure — that’s if they can recover your body.

The lessons from your Denali trip emphasized that as a leader you have to work with limited resources — you can only take what you can put in your pack. What suggestions do you have for leaders in defining what to “put in their packs?” How can you identify what is a “need-to-have” and what is a “nice-to-have” for you and your team?

In terms of resources, it’s a waste of time to stress about what you don’t have. Consider most things “nice to have.” If you’ve got food, water and a place to sleep, you’ve got everything you need. Anything else is a bonus. Look at a lack of resources as an opportunity to stretch yourself and to be creative.

Check out the recordings from the 9th Annual Fuqua School of Business & Coach K Leadership Conference for more leadership insights.