Alison Levine is a highly motivated high achiever. She is an adjunct instructor in leadership at United States Military Academy at West Point, who has also climbed the highest peak on every continent, (a feat known as the Seven Summits,) and skied to both the North and South Poles. She is only one of 38 people to succeed in this combined achievement known as the Adventure Grand Slam.
In her book, On the Edge: The Art of High-Impact Leadership, she uses these experiences to turn advice on leadership into a captivating adventure story, with salient tips on how to guide your team through uncertain and dangerous terrain. The mountain climbing metaphor works well for business and the outcome is a business book that works on many levels.
Levine also uses her experience teaching army officers to anchor her advice. Her observations have been honed in the danger zone of executive action, and then delivered in a pleasant, direct style that is peppered with pithy epithets:
* “Fear is fine, but complacency will kill you.”
* “Never discount the value of courtesy and compassion when it comes to achieving a goal.”
* “Conflict becomes dangerous only when it is unresolved.”
Throughout the book, Levine discusses the importance of the whole journey. She emphasizes the need to understand your goals and ambitions, and to celebrate any progress which brings them closer. In mountain climbing, the summit is not the destination – it’s the safe return to base camp. Similarly in business, where deadlines and release dates often mark the start of another important surge in work.
Her chapters deal with a variety of management issues: team building, effects of stress, preparation, networking, complacency, ego, integrity. Her advice is illustrated with fresh, engaging anecdotes from her adventures, and the net result is a memorable guide to building trust and loyalty.
When selecting your team, she quotes Alfred Edmond Jr: “Screen for aptitude, then hire for attitude.” To which Levine adds her own test for attitude: “Is this someone with whom I would want to spend two months in a tent?” We’ve all done meetings which felt like two cold months under canvas.
This point of view brings a freshness to her observations – such as when she discusses the importance of functioning well with sleep deprivation, or of appreciating team members with healthy egos: “You don’t ever want to climb the Hillary Step (one of the most technically demanding parts of the route) behind someone who, at 28,740 feet, is thinking, “I don’t really know if I have what it takes to do this.”
Underpinning it all is her advice about integrity. “A group is only a team when every member of the group cares as much about helping the other members as they care about helping themselves.”
Her team rules are these: Look each other in the eye; Tell each other the truth; Never be late; Don’t complain; Have each other’s back. By the end of the book I was left with the impression that I would trust Levine with my life, and that I could, indeed, spend two months in a tent with her.
On the Edge: The Art of High-Impact Leadership is published by Business Plus.
Author: Sheridan Jobbins is a journalist and screenwriter.
Image: Wind blows snow off the summit of Mount Everest. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel.