Alison Levine didn’t make it to the summit of Mt. Everest during the first American Women’s Everest Expedition in 2002, but she did learn lessons along the way that apply to every aspect of business and life and helped her reach the summit when she made the expedition a second time eight years later.
Levine told her story at the opening session of the recent Commercial Real Estate Women (CREW) Network Convention in San Diego. The conference hosted 1,200 CREW members from the U.S. and internationally for large and small panel sessions, networking events, site tours, and numerous other opportunities to help women further their careers in CRE.
Levine, author of the New York Times best-selling book On the Edge: Leadership Lessons from Everest and Other Extreme Environments, served as team captain of the first Everest expedition. She started off her talk by saying that willpower is an invaluable tool for helping people get where they want to be. And, despite the bad rap it gets, ego is important, too — both performance ego and team ego, she learned.
What’s surprising about making the trek to the top of Mt. Everest (aside from weather conditions) is that climbers don’t do it linearly. Instead, they must keep returning to base camp at the bottom of the summit during the trip so that their bodies get accustomed to the changes in altitude. Not doing so could be fatal, Levine said. “Anything above 18,000 feet, the body begins to deteriorate. You need to keep coming back down to rest, eat, and hydrate.”
At the same time, the constant “backtracking” was psychologically frustrating, Levine said, “because you know you have to go up.” But what’s important to note is that even though climbers return to where they started, they are still progressing. “Don’t look at backtracking as losing ground,” said Levine. “Backing up is not the same as backing down.”
Another lesson she learned is that fear is fine, but complacency will do you in. You must keep challenging yourself in order to progress, whether it’s in climbing Everest or any other area of life. She also learned that leadership means that every member of the team is responsible for the team reaching its goal — not just the team leader.
Other lessons Levine learned that apply to business and life:
• Storms are always temporary.
• The key to surviving is to take action based on the situation, not on any plan.
• It’s important to plan, but be flexible and remain focused on executing based on what is going on at the time.
• Break large goals down into manageable modules.
• If conditions aren’t right, turn around, cut your losses, and walk away.
• One person’s bad decision can bring down an entire team.
• Even when things feel calm, there’s still risk.
• It’s about the journey, not the destination.
• We’re not really a failure-tolerant society, and this prevents us from taking risks; essentially, failure informs success.
Levine’s team had to stop just short of its goal due to bad weather conditions and not having the supplies and tools needed to reach the summit safely, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t climb the mountain. Having achieved what she did on the first expedition taught Levine about what she could withstand and how to do it again so that she could eventually reach the top. This is an invaluable lesson for all of us.