Alison Levine is one of the only people in the world to have climbed the tallest mountain on every continent, including Mount Everest. She's skied to the North and South Poles. And now the Novato resident is fixing a very direct gaze on me at a Marina coffee shop while she tells me about how to become a leader. This is not entirely un-intimidating, despite how friendly she is.
"Leadership is not task-oriented. That’s management," she tells me. "It is helping the people around you to be their best. It’s service. It’s realizing that we all have the responsibility to look out for each other." We're talking about Levine's new book, On the Edge, which hit the New York Times' bestseller list. It's part memoir, part advice book—a bit like if Jon Krakauer had written Good to Great.
Levine turned to climbing and extreme sports almost twenty years ago, when she had her second round of heart surgery (she was born with Wolff-Parkinson-White Syndrome). It was then that she realized, "If I wanted to know what it felt like to pull a 150-pound sled across the Artic ice, I would have to go do it." So she did, first by training at Mount Shasta. She was still working a corporate gig in San Francisco, but made the long drive on Friday nights to climb on Saturdays (though she admits there were a few times she ended up just sleeping in her car and then heading home). By 2002, she had become the captain of the first American women's expedition to climb Everest. After months of preparation and a long ascent to the peak, bad weather forced them to turn back just a few hundred feet from the summit. She doesn't regret the decision: "People forget that the top of the mountain is the halfway point," Levine says. "The first goal of any expedition is to get back alive." I can't say I disagree, but I push her a little on whether she felt like the operation was a failure. "The only time I feel haunted is when people like you ask if I am," she says, laughing. It's a good point—and she can afford to be magnanimous. After all, she succeeded on a second attempt at summiting Everest in 2010.
Levine gives speeches to corporate audiences on leadership and taught as an adjunct professor at West Point. So what has she learned from her climbing experience? "Fear of failure is a bad excuse," she says. That's part of what held her back the first time at Everest. Another part is a willingness to change plans in light of changing conditions. Then there's the value of positive reinforcement. On her second climb, she credits a fellow mountaineer's pep talk with boosting her all the way up.
That all sounds like pretty good advice to me. Am I going to book the next flight to the Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Nepal? Maybe once I finish binge-watching True Detective. There's still time for me yet. Maybe I'll drive to Shasta next weekend.