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Flex Your Leadership Muscles

A person cannot control the environment, but only his or her reaction to it. So notes mountaineer and polar explorer Alison Levine, who will bring to her keynote address in Seattle insights on leadership from her success with extreme sports—and the corporate ladder.

By Marta Perez Drake

*Nothing like honing your leadership skills on the icy crags of Mount Everest. That's one of the many dangerous feats from which Alison Levine, team captain of the first American Women's Everest Expedition, in 2002, has drawn her conclusions on effective leadership. Levine has also survived Mother Nature's wrath as a climber of the highest peak on each continent (the Seven Summits), and the first American in history to complete a 600-mile traverse on skis from west Antarctica to the South Pole.

The keynote speaker for the opening general session at the NACUBO 2014 Annual Meeting in Seattle, July 19–22, Levine has tackled some of the most challenging environments in the outdoors. What better background to kick off this year's meeting theme, Scaling New Heights?

Levine has not only survived and continued to make sports history; she also serves on the board of the Coach K Center on Leadership and Ethics (COLE) at Duke University; works as an adjunct instructor at the United States Military Academy at West Point; and is a strategic adviser for the academy's Thayer Leader Development Group, an executive education program that shares West Point's leadership best practices with senior-level executives from the public and private sectors.

Energize Your Leadership Edge

Hear Alison Levine's unique take on extreme leadership when she keynotes Sunday's opening general session at the NACUBO 2014 Annual Meeting in Seattle, July 19—22.

One of COLE's concepts, Developing Leaders of Consequence, resonates with Levine: COLE produces entrepreneurial leaders of exceptional character, ethically grounded, and possessed of a global mind-set. These leaders will inspire their followers to meet and exceed an organization's goals through actions that are, at one and the same time, highly productive and highly ethical, while continuously serving the best interests of all the organization's stakeholders.

With more than two decades spent climbing another formidable edifice—the corporate ladder—Levine has worked in the pharmaceutical and medical device industry, earned an MBA at Duke University, and spent three years at Goldman Sachs.

In 2005, she founded the Climb High Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of jobless women in Africa by training them to be trekking guides and porters in their local mountains. Her work in Uganda, subject of the PBS documentary "Living Courageously," included enabling the first group of local women to make history by climbing Uganda's highest peak, Mount Stanley.

Levine combines the lessons learned from both indoor and outdoor challenges in her new book, On the Edge: The Art of High-Impact Leadership (Grand Central Publishing, 2014). In an interview with Business Officer, Levine explains some of the book's central themes: creating cohesive teams, recognizing the value of preparation, and developing no-nonsense leaders who can succeed in times of uncertainty.

Everyone Is a Leader

Alison LevineLevine takes somewhat of a 360-degree approach when it comes to leadership. "Leadership is everyone's responsibility," she says. "It is not solely the responsibility of the C-level executives or the management team within an organization. We are all in a position to proactively work toward having a positive effect on the people around us.

"Everyone in an organization is responsible for helping to move forward with the mission; but in addition, all employees/teammates/people must realize that it is also their responsibility to look out for the people on either side of them, and to help those people move in the right direction as well."

Underscoring this approach is the idea of asking other people to switch off and take a turn as leader on particular days. "I think everyone on a team needs to be empowered to think and act like a leader," says Levine. "That type of trading off really helps people understand that it's everyone's responsibility to lead."

The leaders Levine finds most intriguing, she says, are those who "enable teams to survive and thrive in extreme environments." It requires the willpower, teamwork, high moral character, and emotional intelligence to solve complex problems, including those that exist in today's business world. The global economy, she says, "is more unpredictable than ever, and we each have more on the line as we try to navigate its shifting terrain. The potential costs of a mistake—whether professional, monetary, or emotional—can be high if we do not make the right choices."

Levine suggests a multipronged mind-set for leader and team.

  • Develop your leadership skills in a deliberate, conscious process. "Think about how much time and energy people spend on achieving optimal physical health," she says, "yet few people put the time and effort into strengthening their leadership skills. Just as building muscle strength requires a repetitive routine, the more time you spend focusing on your leadership skills, the stronger they will be."

Levine suggests that academic or business leaders consider a change in environment when looking for professional development. For example, she says, participating in a program at the Thayer Leader Development group at West Point provides access to customized programs for mid- to senior-level managers and gives participants a taste of "leadership the West Point way." Between the academy's leadership development group and other attendees from various organizations and locations, "they'll gain exposure to people they would not normally come across in everyday business dealings."   

  • Consider ego as a good trait. While ego is often viewed as arrogance, Levine describes the positive outcomes of team ego, in which the leader populates the group with individuals who have strong, healthy performance egos of their own and can also buy into what the team is doing together-forming a collective identity. "Who we are as a team trumps who any of us are as individuals," she says.

In assembling your athletics or work teams, says Levine, you want people whom you know are good, and you want people who are proud to be a part of the team. "When I selected the Mount Everest team, nearly everyone I talked with in telephone interviews was clearly qualified to make the climb. But, one of the key things I looked for was enthusiasm and motivation. This is an example of looking for that effective combination of performance ego and team ego."

  • Manage through limitations. "Everyone has got to find an area where they can add value to a team. And, it's really up to the team leader to help each person find that sweet spot. So, for me, because I'm smaller, I'm not going to be able to haul as much weight when it comes to supplies and equipment for a climb. But I could use, for example, in Antarctica, a snow shovel more efficiently, because the shovels are very small. And, taller people are going to wrench their backs using a short shovel. That was an area where I could contribute.

"So, you want to have people on your team who are going to be creative and figure out ways to contribute, but ultimately, it's the leader's responsibility to help that person find his or her sweet spot."

  • Learn from others. "I think it's important, when you're part of any team, to stop and learn from the people around you, whether it's the local Sherpas on a climb or the other people on your team," says Levine. "Leaders need to be able to lead, and leaders need to be able to step back and let other people lead."

For business officers, a large percentage of whom plan to retire within the next several years, Levine's advice is to begin-or continue to-empower the rest of the people in the department to think and act like leaders in the areas that are appropriate for their particular positions.

"That way," she says, "when it's time to retire, you'll have several qualified people who have already been stepping up to larger roles, know what it's like to fill those shoes, and what it's like to be the person who has to make the tough decisions. And, you have people who are used to looking out for the individuals around them, making sure they're on the right track and moving toward the institution's goals."

Prepare to the Max

"It doesn't matter what you've done on a past expedition; all that matters is how you are performing on the mountain right now," says Levine. Whether climbing a mountain or preparing for a crucial business meeting, she elaborates in her book, crucial moments arise when on-the-spot decisions must be made in reaction to the current circumstances. Notes Duke University's head coach Mike Krzyzewski in the book's foreword, "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, he continues, "will depend heavily on the way in which you prepare to face [similar] challenges." 

  • Practice like you mean it. One of Levine's preparation techniques that others might perceive as particularly extreme: Simulate the conditions that will challenge you. Translate this to mountain climbing and it means conditioning yourself for the times when sleep is not an option. "It's usually the stress of not sleeping that works against people more than the deprivation itself," contends Levine. "So, if you practice sleep deprivation, at least you won't be stressed and sleep deprived when the next all-nighter comes along."

Levine doesn't limit this particular practice to extreme sports. "In business, you may have made a commitment to deliver something; your schedule didn't work out as planned; and you need to stay up all night to make it happen. Or, for the business officer, you may face a crisis situation on campus that calls for round-the-clock attention. You don't ever want to fail because you were too tired," cautions Levine.

In general, says Levine, "Regardless of what you have planned, you have to take action based on the situation at the time. And, then, the other piece of advice is just to make decisions based on what's best for the people around you-your team-rather than what's best for you."

  • Don't go solo. Levine acknowledges that training can feel monotonous and sometimes lonely. "Find yourself some training partners," she recommends, "not just for company that will make it more fun, but because it will help improve your skills."

Whether in an athletics situation or a campus setting, it's preferable to train with people who can withstand pressure and who will push you to do the same. And, similarly, whether you're trying to become a better climber or a stronger financial officer, one of the best things you can do, says Levine, is to find mentors and spend time with them. "Don't wait for mentors to come to you-seek them out. Pick people whom you respect and admire, and ask them if you can observe what they do and work alongside them."

One perhaps counterintuitive piece of advice: "Don't just look for people who are senior to you. Find ambitious people who are junior to you ... you will learn a lot from them as well." Levine finds this true in her dealings with the West Point cadets, her work with whom has "probably been the favorite thing I've ever done professionally. I learn so much from the cadets and also from my fellow faculty members. One thing I find interesting is that they [the cadets] have additional aspects to their overall education—leadership training, physical fitness, and military training—that I never had exposure to when I was in school."

Levine also wants to instill in the cadets the larger reach of leadership. "I want them to realize," she says, "that they must think and act like leaders not only when they are at West Point or when they are fulfilling their first military assignments, but the leadership lessons they learn at the academy should stay with them forever-in every aspect of life."

In Uncertain Times, Dare to Fail

When it comes to establishing an organizational culture that is not risk-averse, Levine says that such an attitude really has to come from the leadership, who must create a culture of failure tolerance that will encourage people to take bigger risks. "I think people will take on more challenge and take bigger risks and make more progress in certain areas, if they're not so afraid of failing. And, a lot of times, it's other people's failures that spur future success. So, even if we stumble and fail, that failure could end up helping the people coming up behind us."

Levine also notes: "We tend to celebrate success so much. And, we often forget about the people who tried and failed. Look at people who run for office, and want to make a difference in their communities, or in their state or in their country. One person's a winner, and the other person is just the losing candidate, right? And, they get no credit for anything. 

"We see everything in such a black-and-white way. In the Olympics, this person won the gold medal; this person lost the gold medal-instead of talking about how the person won the silver or the bronze by competing fiercely and fairly. For whatever reason, we're so focused on success at a certain level; it's a shame that we tend to discount everything else. Social media makes it worse, because it allows people to hide behind the Internet and criticize and spew negativity."

What's next for Levine? "Right now, I'm concentrating on the book tour and loving the opportunity to spread the word about the lessons I've learned from so many leaders in sports, industry, and the military," she says. Obviously, leaders have unlimited mountains to climb and challenges to conquer. For example, Levine hasn't tackled Hawaii's Mauna Kea, which, if measured from its base in the Pacific Ocean, is technically the highest mountain on earth. Levine says that, like other leaders, she has certain priorities. "This isn't on my bucket list. If I'm going to Hawaii, I'm going to sit on the beach and relax—not go climbing!"

MARTA PEREZ DRAKE is vice president, professional development, at NACUBO.

Read "Soar in Seattle."