On the Edge: Leadership Lessons from Mount Everest and Other Extreme Environments

On the Edge: Leadership Lessons from Mount Everest and Other Extreme Environments


$24.30 $27.00 Save 10% Current price is $24.3, Original price is $27. You Save 10%.
View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for guaranteed delivery by Monday, November 26

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781455544875
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Publication date: 01/07/2014
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 88,984
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Alison Levine is a history-making polar explorer and mountaineer. She has climbed the highest peak on each continent, served as team captain of the first American Women's Everest Expedition and skied to both the North and South Poles. She holds an MBA from Duke University and served as an adjunct instructor at the United States Military Academy at West Point in the Department of Behavioral Sciences & Leadership.
Levine is a sought-after keynote speaker on the topic of leadership development and has addressed audiences ranging from Fortune 500 companies to the World Economic Forum in Davos. Having spent prolonged periods of time in some of the world's most dangerous and inhospitable places, she addresses the topics of creating cohesive teams, taking responsible risks and developing no-nonsense leaders that can succeed in times of uncertainty.
Levine serves on the advisory board of the Coach K Center on Leadership & Ethics at Duke University and is a strategic advisor for the Thayer Leader Development Group at West Point. She was a contributing author to the book Leadership in Dangerous Situations: A Handbook for the Armed Forces, Emergency Services and First Responders (Naval Institute Press).

Read an Excerpt

On the Edge

The Art of High-Impact Leadership

By Alison Levine

Grand Central Publishing

Copyright © 2014 Alison Levine
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4555-4487-5



Sometimes It Hurts

I believe in being prepared. But when I say, "be prepared," I don't necessarily mean what other people mean when they utter the Boy Scout motto. I'm not talking about bringing extra matches. I'm talking about extreme preparation.

On May 16, 1975, Junko Tabei reached the summit of Mount Everest and became the first woman to stand on top of the world's highest mountain. She was four foot nine, thirty-five years old, and had a two-year-old daughter at home in Tokyo at the time. What made her accomplishment even more remarkable was that twelve days earlier, she and four of her teammates—all part of a Japanese women's expedition—had been caught in an avalanche at Camp 2 and were completely buried. It took six Sherpas to dig them out. Miraculously, they all survived, but their bodies were beaten up and bruised, as were their psyches. Junko herself was in so much pain immediately after the avalanche that she could barely stand. Still, something got her to the summit. What was it? Here's what Tabei will tell you: "Technique and ability alone do not get you to the top—it is the willpower that is the most important. This willpower you cannot buy with money or be given by others—it rises from your heart."

Fair enough, but I would add this: while willpower may help you get you to the top, you better have technique and ability if you plan to get yourself and your team back down. People often forget that the top is only the halfway point. The majority of deaths on big peaks occur after people have reached the summit, because they have used every ounce of energy they have to get to the top and have nothing left to get themselves back down. The descent on Everest's summit ridge is harrowing—it's a 10,000-foot drop on one side and an 8,000-foot drop on the other. You have to descend the infamous Hillary Step, a forty-foot spur of near-vertical rock and ice at 28,740 feet, and make it back down to the South Col at 26,300 feet, so you better have enough reserves—both in your oxygen tank and in your body. Otherwise? You'll die.

The cruel fact is that many people who are absolutely, categorically determined to succeed on Everest die on the mountain because they're not ready for the reality they encounter on the peak. In fact, sheer desire accompanied by a lack of preparation is often a deadly concoction up there. Tabei was right on the money when she said that you need mental toughness to get to the top, but rarely is it enough by itself: in extreme environments you will vastly increase your odds of success if you add proper training and preparation.

Over the years I have seen many expeditions end in disappointment because of a lack of preparedness. If you're going to take on a big, hairy challenge, be it in the mountains, in business, or in life, you understand up front that you may succeed or you may not. But you don't ever want to fail and wonder if the outcome would have been different had you only been more ready. When you get shut down because of environmental factors, you face disappointment, but you don't second-guess yourself or your abilities, since the environment is something that you cannot do anything about. But if you turn back short of your goal because you just weren't strong enough to make it, that's when you start to beat yourself up and ask the tough questions: Could I have trained more? Trained harder? Trained smarter? Was I dedicated enough? Was I focused enough?

Only you can answer these questions. You want to go into a climb feeling as if you have done everything humanly possible to set yourself and your team up for success, because once you get to the mountain everything is working against you: the cold, the wind, the altitude, the physical deterioration, the psychological challenges, the teammate who steals your extra toilet paper—everything. There is no excuse for showing up in less than top form. You owe it to yourself, and more important, you owe it to your team. Leaders have got to show up ready for battle. People will expect more from you than they do from others. You need to be able to perform at a level, both physically and psychologically, that exceeds expectations.

High-altitude expedition training is no easy task for anyone, but it is especially challenging for those who don't live near the mountains and have to find alternative ways to get into shape—people like me. In 2001, when I was preparing for the first American Women's Everest Expedition, I was just one year out of business school and was a new associate at Goldman Sachs. I had just transferred to the firm's San Francisco office after spending nine months at its headquarters in New York City. Getting a job at Goldman came as a shock to me. I had competed with applicants who had Ivy League educations, and many of them had worked in finance prior to earning their MBAs. I was liberal arts major at the University of Arizona and had no finance or accounting background. The fact that I didn't do particularly well in my quantitative classes in business school made getting a job at a blue-chip financial firm seem even less likely. But I did have tenacity, drive, and determination. I also sent postcards to the firm's recruiters every time I went on a climbing trip during my vacation time from business school, so I think I scored some creativity points there (as that stands out more than sending a postcard from a CFA class). And the people who made the hiring decisions had faith that I was at least intelligent enough to learn the business.

I had gone to business school with the intent of opening an adventure travel company someday, and working for an investment bank was not what I had envisioned for myself. But I did want to learn about finance, and to that end, I figured there was no better place than a Wall Street firm. Not surprisingly, I was out of my comfort zone every day in that job at Goldman. I was surrounded by people who truly had a passion for the markets. Most of my colleagues were at their desks by 5:00 or 6:00 a.m., and many came in even earlier. I wasn't really all that sure what they were doing there that early every day, but everyone looked busy, which wasn't hard to do—you could just stare at your computer screen and either nod or shake your head excessively based on what the markets were doing.

I really wanted to do well at the firm; after all, landing the job in the first place was such a long shot, and I didn't want to disappoint the people who had gone out on a limb to hire me. I was sure that they would eventually figure out they had made the hiring mistake of the century, but I didn't want to blow it right away, so I came in early and worked late and pretended that I had what it took to get meetings with important people. I would pick up the phone and speak at an abnormally loud volume level for the benefit of the people who were seated around me in the office. "Yes, yes, Mr. Gates ... well, okay, Bill ... if you insist ... yep, looking forward to seeing you on Tuesday. Yep, ten a.m. works great. Give my best to Melinda."

Of course there was no one on the other end of the phone. I couldn't seem to get any business prospects to meet with me. That might have been why I never earned a penny of commission and made less money than most of the administrative assistants there. Then again, they were better at their jobs than I was at mine. But while I felt incredibly out of place at Goldman, I was also determined to make it work. I was learning a lot, and although I truly sucked at the job, I really liked the firm and the people. And whether I enjoyed the work was irrelevant—I had signed up for the job, and I didn't want to fail.

Things got even trickier when the markets took a nosedive in 2001. Everyone was worried about layoffs, so work turned into a huge face-time contest. Everyone started coming in earlier and earlier and staying later and later. No one wanted to be the last one in or the first to leave. I was now getting home around 8:00 p.m.

Meanwhile, I was still trying to find a corporate sponsor for the Everest expedition, because there would be no trip unless I raised the funds. I didn't have $30,000 lying around, and no one else I knew who was a climber had any money, either. In addition, I was also trying to raise money for the V Foundation for Cancer Research, an organization founded by ESPN and legendary college basketball coach Jim Valvano, who died of cancer in 1993. I was a big fan of Valvano because of his "Never Give Up" speech, which he delivered during ESPN's ESPY (Excellence in Sports Performance Yearly) Awards just eight weeks before he died. I wanted this climb to have some impact and figured that was a good way to do it.

Of course, I was banking on the fact that the Everest expedition was actually going to happen, so there was some pressure to ensure the trip became a reality, since I had already told the V Foundation I was climbing in honor of Coach Valvano. So I would get home from work, open my mail, get some food in me, and then I'd spend what was left of the evening focused on finding an expedition sponsor and on soliciting donations for cancer research. I was writing dozens of letters and sending out hundreds of e-mails each night. By the time I thought about looking up at the clock it was already midnight—often later. I had to get up at 4:00 a.m. every morning, which left me about four hours each night to both sleep and train to climb the world's highest peak.

I eventually came up with what I thought was an ideal solution to this conundrum. I found a health club that was open twenty-four hours, and I would go there around 1:00 in the morning and find cardio equipment that I could do with my eyes closed (StairMaster with a heavy pack, or stationary bike with a lot of resistance). As I was stepping or pedaling away, I tried to convince myself that during my visits to the gym I was both sleeping and working out at the same time. I figured that if I could build some leg strength, work on my cardio, and also get some REM sleep in before the sun came up, it was a pretty good use of my "free time." I congratulated myself for being a master multitasker. Ha!

Of course I wasn't accomplishing either of the things I needed to be doing (sleeping or training properly), and the exhaustion caught up to me after about ten days. Meanwhile, my stress level was through the ceiling. I was compromising my health by existing in a chronic state of sleep deprivation and extreme exhaustion. And worse, I wasn't training efficiently, which meant I risked showing up for the climb unprepared. Not an option. As the team captain of the first American Women's Everest Expedition, I couldn't afford for that to happen. But I had to stay focused on the job as well, or I would find myself without one. Also not an option. My paycheck barely covered my monthly living expenses, and I was carrying student loan debt, so I couldn't afford to be unemployed. I needed to remain focused at work because I absolutely could not lose my job, and I needed to be focused on the training because people would be counting on me during the expedition.

Ultimately, I knew I had to give up the 1:00 a.m. gym workouts, which weren't cutting it anyway. You can't prepare your body (or your mind) for a serious expedition in a gym. I knew my teammates would be training outdoors in Colorado and Washington State, and I owed it to them, as well as to myself, to show up in the best possible shape that I could. With that in mind, I completely changed my training regimen. During the weekdays I stayed totally focused on my job at Goldman and tried to get as much sleep at night as I could, given my 5:30 a.m. start time. I focused on fundraising in the evenings after work. And then I dedicated my weekends to training properly for the climb. I would work a full day in the office on Friday, and then on Saturday I would drive up to Mount Shasta in Siskiyou County, California—a five-and-a-half- or six-hour drive from my apartment in San Francisco.

The summit of Mount Shasta is 14,179 feet above sea level, and the mountain is covered in snow in the winter. The total distance of the trail from the parking lot to the summit is six miles and the elevation gain is more than 7,000 feet (that's a lot of gain in six miles). A good portion of the route is steep enough to require an ice axe and crampons. Winds on the peak can exceed 100 miles per hour. All in all, Shasta is great conditioning for a serious expedition. Climbing it was certainly much better than anything I could do in a gym.

Training for hours on a StairMaster indoors is incredibly helpful if you're planning to, oh, I don't know, climb a lot of stairs in your temperature- controlled office building—but it won't do squat for you if you're planning to climb an 8,000-meter peak. If you want to do well on a climb, it's important to simulate the conditions you're going to face on the mountain. That means you have to get outside, strap a heavy pack on your back, grab your ice axe, and go fight your way up some big hills in snow, high winds, and cold temperatures.

Mount Shasta was an ideal training ground for me. I would drive up there in the early evening, get there by 11:00 p.m., start the climb around 11:30 p.m., and go from the parking lot to the summit and back in one straight shot—which usually took me ten to twelve hours (depending on how much weight I was carrying). The physical training was right on target. But climbing Shasta also gave me something else—the psychological training that comes with pushing yourself through an entire night with no sleep and knowing you can run on fumes, powered by nothing more than adrenaline and maybe a power gel or two.

Climbing through the night with no sleep is something you frequently do on expeditions. Sometimes you don't sleep because you feel sick from the altitude. Sometimes you don't sleep because the winds are howling all night. Sometimes you don't sleep because your tent mate is snoring like hell. But often you don't sleep because you are starting your climb at 2:00 a.m. (perhaps even earlier). Teams start climbing well before sunup; the route is safer when it's frozen, because there is less chance of crevasses opening up or avalanches being triggered or rocks falling with enough momentum to kill you. So even if you lay down in your tent at 9:00 p.m., all you do is toss and turn and stress out about oversleeping.

To be an effective leader, it's important that you condition yourself for the times when sleep is not an option. And there will be such times, because that is the nature of changing environments, where the unexpected lies around the corner. When you've got a tight deadline, or you've made a commitment to deliver something, you make good on that commitment even if it means staying up all night to make it happen. It's also highly possible that you may face a crisis situation that calls for round-the-clock attention. It's usually the stress of not sleeping that works against people more than the sleep deprivation itself, so that's why it's great to learn you can go a night without getting any z's and still perform the next day. Sure, you perform better with sleep, but if you "practice" sleep deprivation, then you won't stress out when you actually experience it. So you can either be stressed and sleep deprived, or just sleep deprived. Take your pick.

You don't ever want to fail because you were too tired. It's just not a good excuse. You have to find that voice inside your head that tells you that you can keep going, and that's when your adrenaline kicks in. Warning: the adrenaline thing may not happen when you're sitting in your office waiting for your 4:00 p.m. meeting to go over the financials from last quarter, so there are times when a cup of coffee might be warranted. I also highly recommend perfecting the art of the power nap. Go out to your car or close the door to your office, and sleep for twenty minutes. Dr. Jonathan Friedman, director of the Texas Brain and Spine Institute, claims that "emerging scientific evidence suggests that naps—even very short ones—significantly enhance cognitive function." There you have it.


Excerpted from On the Edge by Alison Levine. Copyright © 2014 Alison Levine. Excerpted by permission of Grand Central Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword xi

Approach xv

Chapter 1 Hard-Core Preparation: Sometimes It Hurts 1

Chapter 2 Go Back, Jack, Do It Again: Why Backward Is Often the Right Direction 19

Chapter 3 Choosing Your Team: Experience, Expertise, and Ego 33

Chapter 4 Friends in High Places: Get Your Network On 55

Chapter 5 Complacency Will Kill You: Make Your Move 77

Chapter 6 Coming Up Short: Making the Most of Weakness 99

Chapter 7 Bring It: You Need Your A-Game, and Then Some 121

Chapter 8 You're Not Special: Building Trust and Loyalty 145

Chapter 9 Ignore the Rules: Do the Right Thing. Always 163

Chapter 10 Your Three Words: What's Your Mantra? 181

Chapter 11 Embracing Failure: Own It, and Come Back with a Vengeance 199

Afterword 229

Index 233

About the Author 241



Alison Levine knows what adversity looks like. More than that, she knows what it feels like and how it can hurt.

A climber faces some of the most difficult and extreme physical adversities of any athlete—competing with high altitudes, sore muscles, unrelenting fatigue, and unpredictable weather.

So, when I hear Alison say that a person cannot control the environment but only his or her reaction to it, I know I am hearing leadership advice from someone who has been there, someone who has faced some of the most extreme environmental circumstances imaginable.

Many of the leadership lessons Alison articulates in this book are lessons that resonate with me in the work I do with my basketball teams at Duke and with USA Basketball.

I love the way she talks about past experiences—that, whether they be failures or successes, they are essentially irrelevant in the moment. She would say that “It doesn't matter what you've done on a past expedition; all that matters is how you are performing on the mountain now.” In my work as a basketball coach, I call that concept “Next Play.” Previous plays, games, or seasons must not carry into the current moment. Certainly past mistakes and successes can inform the way a person decides to practice and prepare and get better, but, in the moment, when you are on the mountain, the last expedition just doesn't carry any meaning anymore.

I also really appreciate the way she discusses leadership in sports as compared with leadership in today's business world. In both, there are crucial moments when on-the-spot decisions must be made in reaction to the circumstances you face. I agree with Alison that this is perhaps one of the most important lessons that business leaders can learn from sports leaders, and vice versa.

The way you react to something in the moment will depend heavily on the way in which you prepare to face challenges. Alison will tell you to practice things like sleep deprivation, something my family will tell you is common for me during the basketball season, and certainly, in Alison's adventures, it is a crucial obstacle to overcome. Perhaps sleep deprivation is not a common challenge in your sport, business, or lifestyle, but Alison's point about practice and preparation is vital to anyone's success.

Practice, though, can only be a simulation. You will never be able to replicate exactly what it feels like to be cold and exhausted and still two hundred feet from the peak of a mountain or to have the basketball in your hands down by one point with seconds on the clock. But you can sure try. And one who wants to be ultimately prepared to make it to the top or to sink a game-winning shot will need to do whatever he or she can to make practice feel as real as possible.

Alison and I also share a fondness for teammates with egos, and I love the way she describes the performance egos and the team ego of her American Women's Everest Expedition team. Ego has become a negative word; many see it as being synonymous with arrogance.

To Alison and me, ego is a good thing, and I always want to surround myself and populate my teams with individuals who have strong, healthy egos. Then, I want all of those people, myself included, to buy into what we are doing together in order to form a collective ego that is greater than any individual ego could ever be. Who we are as a team trumps who any of us are as individuals.

A mountain climb is the consummate metaphor for enduring and, ultimately, achieving. Fighting an “uphill battle” doesn't get any more literal than that. Alison has climbed the highest peaks on every continent. She has endured issues with her health that brought about challenges to her future as an athlete. She has accomplished feats of physical and mental strength that only a handful of human beings have ever even attempted.

So, when she talks about facing challenges and breaking through the barriers of one's perceived limitations, I tend to listen.

I would be lying if I didn't admit that it makes me feel proud that Alison has taken Duke banners to the top of many of the world's highest peaks. But, frankly, more than that, I am proud to know her, to have talked about leadership and teamwork with her, and to have had the honor of contributing to this terrific book about leadership from one of the toughest leaders I know. --Mike Krzyzewski, 2013 Head Coach—Duke University Men's Basketball and U.S. National Olympic Team

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews