What Scaling Mount Everest Taught Me About Leadership

What Scaling Mount Everest Taught Me About Leadership


As a high-altitude mountaineer and polar explorer, I headed the first American Women’s Everest Expedition, climbed the highest peak on every continent and skied to both the North and South Poles.

And this was after spending two decades in the business world, a feat in and of itself. I’ve learnt in both environments that there’s no better training ground for leaders than high-stakes settings that push you beyond their limits.

Here are five takeaways from my new book On the Edge: The Art of High-Impact Leadership that’ll help you scale whatever big peaks you aspire to climb.

1. Learn the art of improvisation.

Improv skills can be more important than the ability to execute a plan. On a mountain, weather and route conditions determine how you proceed, so rarely will you be able to stick to a particular plan.

In business, plans are outdated as soon as they’re finished because of the breakneck pace of technology and rampant disruption. So sometimes you have to toss them out and take action based on the situation at the time.

Both situations require the ability to act and react quickly and make tough decisions when the conditions around you are far from perfect, because complacency will kill you.

2. Practice sleep deprivation.

Sounds more like torture than a tip. But on expeditions, it’s not unusual for climbers to have to push themselves for 20 or more hours with no sleep.

In business, there will also be occasions where you need to pull an all-nighter to finish a project on time. People should practice sleep deprivation so that they know they can perform on minimal or zero sleep.

3. Embrace jerks.

When it comes to personalities, we aren’t as quick to embrace people who don’t behave like we do. Some people are just jerks. But if they are exceptional performers, we need to try to embrace them.

4. Network as if your life depends on it.

Every spring there are people who die on Mount Everest, and it’s a tragedy that should never happen. But it does. A variety of factors contribute to whether or not someone will be rescued, but you can stack the deck in your favour by building strong relationships with the other teams.

People are more likely to take personal risks for someone they know.

Take the time to network and form strategic partnerships. When you’re in a precarious situation, you just never know who you might need to call on for help at some point.

5. Don’t hesitate to change direction.

Changing direction does not mean losing ground. When climbing Everest, the need to retreat to lower camps is imperative, as you need to ensure your body adapts and recovers from the effects of high altitude.

Spending time climbing in the ‘wrong direction’ is hell on the psyche. But you have to remember that even though you are often going backward along the route, you’re still making progress. Same goes for business.

Sometimes you have to go backward to eventually get to where you want to end up.

Alison Levine
Alison Levine is an American mountain climber, sportswoman, explorer, and entrepreneur. She has ascended the highest peaks on every continent and also skied to both the North and South Poles.