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Business Officer Magazine

Lessons From the Edge

Opening general session keynote speaker Alison Levine knows firsthand what it takes to scale new heights. As someone who has climbed the highest peak on each continent (the Seven Summits), Levine's reflections on how to lead amid challenging—and downright dangerous—environments resonated with attendees. Among Levine's counterintuitive lessons gleaned from her extreme mountain climbing:

  • Break a ridiculous goal into smaller, manageable parts. Climbing from sea level to 29,000 feet is daunting. Stop stressing about reaching the summit and instead focus on first making it safely to base camp, and then to Camp 1, Camp 2, and Camp 3. And, when the going is really slow and painful, focus on the next rock and the next piece of ice.
  • You can still make progress while heading in the wrong direction. When climbing the world's tallest peaks, your body can't acclimate to the change in altitude by heading in a purely linear direction. Anything above 18,000 feet—the altitude of Mount Everest's base camp—requires time for your body to adjust. The pattern for climbers is to reach Camp 1,then return to base camp; climb to Camp 2, return to base camp; make it to Camp 3 (almost 24,000 feet), and then return to base camp where you can comfortably eat, sleep, and hydrate to regain the strength needed to climb better and faster the next day. This process is frustrating for progress-oriented types, but going backwards is not the same as backing down, asserts Levine.
  • The summit is not the goal; it's the halfway point. Most deaths from climbing a mountain like Mount Everest occur on the way down, notes Levine. If you use up everything you have in you to get to the top and don't have the energy reserves to get back down, your body will simply give out no matter where you are on the mountain. Know your halfway point and be OK with turning around before you reach the top.
  • Be ready to ditch your plan when reality intervenes. Similarly, don't be so bent on sticking to a seemingly perfect plan when you are in the middle of a storm. While storms are temporary, you still have to respond in real time to conditions over which you have no control. And when conditions are far from perfect, you may have to cut your losses and walk away. While disappointing to miss your goal by a small margin, more important is coming back alive and having the opportunity to try again.

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