From Mount Everest to the Corner Office

What the business world can learn from a mountaineer.

Mount Everest.

Mount Everest.

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Extreme environments, where a decision can mean the difference between life and death, hold lessons for corporate boardrooms, battlefields and even the White House, says mountaineer Alison Levine, a lecturer on leadership at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. In “On the Edge: The Art of High-Impact Leadership,” Levine applies the knowledge she gained from climbing the highest peak on every continent, skiing the North and South Poles and her two decades in the business world. She recently spoke with U.S. News about how failure and apparent weaknesses can contribute to success. Excerpts:

How does your experience as a mountaineer translate to the business world?

There are so many lessons. For example, in order to succeed, you have to be able to take action based on the situation at the time, rather than on some plan. Plans are outdated as soon as they’re finished when you’re in environments that change very rapidly. In the business world, everything moves at such a frenetic pace with technology and innovation. What works today isn’t going to work tomorrow, so you’ve got to be able to think quickly and take action based upon what’s going on around you.

Another lesson that helped me stay alive in the mountains is that complacency will kill you. The Khumbu Icefall is one of the most dangerous areas on [Mount Everest]. It’s basically 2,000 vertical feet of these huge, moving ice chunks. The sun comes up and as everything starts to melt, these huge ice chunks start to shift around, so you are in constant danger of being crushed. You have to move through the Khumbu Icefall very quickly. If you aren’t able to move, that’s what puts you at risk. The business world is the same way. At the rate everything is changing you’ve got to be able to take action and take action quickly.

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What is the most important characteristic of an effective leader?

Competence. It doesn’t matter how funny or charismatic you are. [What] it comes down to is competence.

How can leaders inspire the people they are leading?

Empower everyone to think and act like a leader. For example, on my South Pole expedition, the designated team leader had everybody take turns being in a leadership role every day. Every day someone new took responsibility for route finding, for figuring out how many miles we were going to ski, when we were going to stop for breaks, where we were going to set up camp. Had anything happened to [the team leader], the rest of the team would have been able to carry on with the mission.

Should companies encourage more creative risk-taking?

In general, I don’t think we’re a very failure-tolerant society. We’ve got to give people that freedom to fail and encourage them to take risks. Instead of looking at failure as a setback, we need to look at failure as paving the way for future success. Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, the first guys to summit Mount Everest, everybody knows their names because they were the first to get there. But there were dozens of climbers that tried and failed before those two set out. While [Hillary and Norgay] deserve really a lot of credit for getting to the top of the mountain, you also have to give credit to the people who paved the way for them to get there. We really need to change our view on failure and give people the freedom to fail [or else we’ll] stifle progress and innovation and prevent people from taking risks.

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You have some unorthodox advice in your book. For example, how does adjusting to innate weaknesses help leaders?

There are going to be weaknesses that you cannot overcome. My size is something I will never overcome. On my South Pole expedition I was the shortest, smallest person on the team. And no matter how hard I trained, the laws of physics dictate that somebody who is 6’4”, 230 pounds is going to be able to haul a 150-pound sled a lot more quickly and efficiently than I can. While I couldn’t overcome my weakness, I could compensate for it. I found a way that I could contribute more to the team; it was a way in which my size was an advantage. At the end of [every] day, after skiing for 15 hours, you have to build a snow barricade around your tent to protect it from the elements. And you [have to] build this snow barricade with a very short snow shovel. The taller guys were really wrenching their backs trying to bend over, so I became the person that shoveled the snow barricade around people’s tents. What you have to do is use creativity, tenacity and determination to compensate [for any disadvantages].

What could President Obama and other political leaders learn from your book?

That it’s important to unite people on your team and create that sense of camaraderie rather than blaming certain people for failure. No CEO would ever say, ‘Well, if it weren’t for manufacturing screwing up, we would have had a great quarter.’ You have to focus on pulling everyone together when things don’t go right.