Following this year’s presentation of Columbus Academy’s Annual Celebration of Leadership Assembly, seven Academy Life staff members had the opportunity to sit down with Alison Levine and discuss her life as a business woman, explorer, mountaineer, and leader of the first American Women’s Everest Expedition. Additionally, Levine is a New York Times bestselling author of “On the Edge,” which documents her experiences on Everest and how these endeavors relate to leadership. A condensed version of the interview appears below.
On building confidence: I often go back to that quote from Junko Tabei, the first woman that ever climbed Mount Everest. She said, “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 to by others. It rises from your heart.” I always remember that quote and know that, no matter what I have or don’t have in this life, I have willpower. We all have willpower. Once you summon that voice in your head that tells you that you can do something, you know that voice is there, and you can always summon it when you need it.
On arrogance vs. confidence: What’s that line from Top Gun? “Son, your ego is writing some checks that the rest of your body can’t cash?” I think it’s important to be confident, but you also want people to also realize their limitations. There were people I talked to when I was interviewing teammates who I didn’t think were ready to climb a mountain like Mount Everest, who didn’t quite have the skillset yet. A false sense of confidence is different than having an ego. You know when Coach K talks about ego, he talks about people that can back [it] up, like LeBron James. And he talks a good game, and he has every right to. He does have that sense of ego, and I see nothing wrong with that! Coach K doesn’t want him to tone it down. It’s just important to decipher between performance ego and a false sense of capability.
On asking for what you want: Even just asking for the time off [to climb Everest], I was scared because I thought that if I asked for time off, then they were going to think that I wasn’t very dedicated to the job. I was afraid to ask, but then again, if you don’t ask for the things you want, you will absolutely never get them. I knew there was only going to be one first American Women’s Everest Expedition. I still wasn’t feeling completely confident that I would be able to climb the mountain, but the thought of somebody else living my adventure really bothered me. You just have to have the courage to ask for the things you want.
On her mentor: My dad was the very first FBI agent to ever publicly speak out against J. Edgar Hoover. Back then, Hoover was a very powerful person, and so nobody listened to my dad. Hoover branded him as a threat to national security, and Hoover wrote a letter to the then-US Attorney General Bobby Kennedy asking for my dad’s phone to be tapped and his residence to be kept under surveillance. My dad’s career was absolutely decimated. But after Hoover died, they investigated him, and they figured out all of the unethical crazy things he was doing. My dad was in TIME magazine, and he’s been written up in all of these books about how he was the first agent who ever publicly spoke out about Hoover. I learned from him that when you see something that is not right, you speak out against it, even if it can cost you.
On building a team: You have your team, and team isn’t just about sports. I have my team of people, whether it’s my husband, my dog, my friends.Everyone has to have their squad. I think that helps you because those people are good about keeping you in check. They are going to be supportive, and just seeking feedback from people who support you will sort of keep you from becoming complacent and also can help boost your confidence. I think it’s important to just remember that even though you guys are intelligent, successful students, it’s not a sign of weakness to go to people and ask for help. When you’re feeling like you need a little confidence boost, it’s important to ask for help from people that care about you.
On the line between leading and being overbearing: I always try to have good communication with everyone on the team. You want to be able to build trust and loyalty because sometimes you are going to have to make a unilateral decision where you can’t really get consensus from everyone. You can make and have more support for your unilateral decisions if you have a lot of trust and loyalty in your team.That’s my strategy: to make sure every single person knows I care about them as an individual, not that I care about them as someone who is going to help me achieve my goal.
On failure: I talk about failure tolerance, and I’m not talking about failure to use good judgment or moral failures like lie, cheat, steal; that’s not part of the equation. It’s important for community leaders or business leaders to actually encourage people to do something that they know they cannot accomplish, to try for something that you know is going to make you fall on your face and fail because you still learn things along the way. It’s a mistake to look at people with perfect track records and assume those people are going to be your best leaders. Sometimes it is the people who’ve been bruised and bloodied, who’ve stumbled and fallen along the way. It’s their efforts that allow other people to succeed down the road.
On knowing when to quit: A lot of people ask me, “you had a storm in 2002 and you also had a storm in 2010, and you made it in similar circumstances in 2010. How come you turned back in 2002 but you pushed it in 2010?” The short answer is that it depends on who else is at risk at the time. In 2002, we were a part of a team. My risk tolerance is higher when it’s just me. When I’m responsible for other people, I do not have the same risk tolerance because I know that my decisions are going to affect a lot of other people and not just me.
On challenges beyond mountains: What I struggle with now is that I’m on the road so much, and I feel like I am not around for important things, and that causes a lot of internal conflict for me. Having to say no and feeling like I’m not coming through for people who are important to me creates a lot of internal conflict for me. I like to be the person who is there for people who are important to me, and I can’t always be there, and that really is something I’ve struggled with for the past few years.
Photo by Megan Leffler