How Alison Levine Reached the Summit of Everest and Business
Alison Levine is scheduled to speak to the New York chapter of 85 Broads, a national women’s networking group. That is, she will speak if she can get to the meeting room.
Levine and her retinue — four representatives of her publisher and a reporter — are in the lobby of the McGraw-Hill Building trying to make it past security. Levine’s topic is the leadership lessons she learned climbing to the tops of the highest mountains on each continent and skiing to both the North and South Pole.
Her accomplishment is called the Adventure Grand Slam and only about 40 people have ever done it. It is arduous and demanding, yet, at the moment, scaling Everest seems to pale in comparison to getting to the 50th floor of 1221 Avenue of the Americas.
“The security is tighter here,” she conceded with a smile.
Levine, 47, doesn’t look like a mountain climber, at least if your idea of a mountain climber is someone brawny and capable of jumping deep crevasses in a single bound.
“I hear that a lot,” Levine admits. She is slight — 5 feet 4 inches tall, a little over 100 pounds. “What’s hard about that is you have to carry the same amount of gear as a guy 6’4” and 280 pounds whose legs are longer.”
She overcomes her physical limitations by preparation in a real world environment. “Training for hours on a StairMaster indoors is incredibly helpful if you’re planning to, oh, I don’t know, climb a lot of stairs.”
That is one of many nuggets of wisdom culled from her new book, “On the Edge: The Art of High Impact Leadership.” Levine has successfully created a cottage industry by applying the knowledge she acquired in extreme sports to what she calls “today’s extreme business environment.”
In addition to consulting for and speaking to executives of Fortune 500 companies, she serves as adjunct professor at the United States Military Academy and works with leadership programs at West Point and Duke University.
Ultimately, of course, we reach the summit — or at least the 50th floor. While the ladies who munch dine on hors d’oeuvres and sip wine in the back of the room, Levine and I find a quiet place in front where she recounts what by almost any standard is a surreal journey from Phoenix to the mountaintops of both the business and real worlds.
Her greatest hurdles were her illnesses, she says. Levine suffered from a rare electrical defect in her heart that remained undiagnosed until she was 17 years old. An early surgery and medication didn’t help; she made numerous trips to the emergency room before a new surgical technique cured the problem in 1996 — at age 30 — two years before she climbed her first major peak.
She dismisses the problem as being nothing now, in the same way she shrugs off her battle with Raynaud’s disease, which she was diagnosed with when she was 20. The disease limits blood flow to the skin, a condition exacerbated by — yes — cold and stress. “I’ve learned how to manage it,” she says.
It turns out Levine’s quixotic journey tackling the world’s largest windmills actually may be a genetic imperative inherited from her father, Jack. If the name Jack Levine is familiar it is because he was the special agent of the FBI who, in the early ’60s, spoke out against his boss, J. Edgar Hoover, accusing him of, among other malfeasances, anti-Semitism.
He further charged the bureau — and Hoover — of using the threat of the Communist Party as an excuse for numerous civil rights violations and unauthorized wire taps. Jack Levine “was labeled a threat to national security and railroaded out of the bureau. We have a copy of a letter that J. Edgar Hoover wrote to Bobby Kennedy, back when Bobby Kennedy was attorney general, asking to put a wiretap on my dad’s phone and keep his residence under surveillance.”
Hoover, she continues, “basically blocked” her father from taking the New York bar exam.
So the family picked up stakes and moved to Arizona — which “was still the wild West at the time” — looking for a new start. Hoover’s reach followed them there, but because of a court ruling in his favor, her father was able to take and pass the Arizona bar.
It was a relatively idyllic time. Levine remembers spending a lot of time on horses borrowed from a stable near her home, “riding two or three times a week.” She was also involved in community theater.
Her family was “not very observant as far as attending services. I would say we were more culturally Jewish than religious.
“But we had family dinner. You were expected to sit at the table with the family every Friday night. That’s very funny, because my parents weren’t very strict about many things. We didn’t have curfews in high school when most kids did. We were going to midnight movies when we were 14 or 15. We did a lot of things kids [our age] weren’t allowed to do, but one thing that was always enforced was you will sit at the table Friday night and we will have a family dinner no matter what.”
She was not a bat mitzvah. “My mom gave me a choice: a bat mitzvah or a wedding and I made the mistake of choosing the wedding, and of course I’m 47 and single.”
She attended the University of Arizona, worked in the pharmaceutical and medical device industry both in the States and in Asia.
The experience overseas encouraged the entrepreneurial spirit in Levine, who thought she might found an adventure travel company. She had the experience overseas and in marketing, but recognized that she lacked the financial background necessary to run a company. So she enrolled in the MBA program at Duke University.
She quit her job two months before classes began “to do something I’d never done before, something different.” As a youngster she’d been intrigued by “the stories of the Arctic explorers and mountain climbers. After my second heart surgery, a light bulb went off. I wanted to know how Reinhold Messner and Edmund Hillary did it. I needed to get out on the mountain.”
So she headed for Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, hired a guide and headed for the top. It was as easy as that, she explains. Kilimanjaro requires no technical climbing skills, only stamina to go up the trail to the top.
“All kinds of guides and porters are at the base of the mountain waiting to be hired. For a few hundred dollars you can get someone to take you up.”
It proved to be an eye-opening experience. “I had to borrow a fleece jacket, a backpack. I didn’t own anything except a pair of hiking boots. I learned so much about myself on that trip. First of all, everything I need to get by I could fit in a backpack; you really don’t need much in life to survive.
“It’s a really empowering feeling to know you can survive up on a mountain with just the stuff you can carry on your back. Also it was the first time I tested myself physically. I was cold, tired, and had an altitude headache. I felt really crappy.
“And then you just take one step and then you take one more step and then you take one more step. After that you realize even if you feel like absolute hell, if you have the determination, you can keep going.”
That will power attracted the attention of former General Thomas A. Kolditz, professor and director of the Leadership Development Program at the Yale School of Management.
“I was impressed with her comments and asked if she’d come up to West Point and talk about leadership to some of my cadets,” he said.
The two kept running into each other at conferences. About five years ago, Kolditz got an unexpected call for help from Levine: “She wanted to enlist in the army, but was six months too old. She wanted to see if I could get a waiver. She was inspired by this sacrifice of soldiers.”
Levine confirmed the account, adding, “I feel everyone should serve. It doesn’t have to be in uniform, but everyone should serve.”
Kolditz offered a way. “I appointed her as an adjunct professor and increased the frequency of her visits and classes across the leadership core course. That was her way of giving back. It’s a pretty impressive story.”
“I still think the army lost out,” Levine said. “I would have been a good soldier.”
This still leaves one question. It was asked by Yossi Vardi, the founder of one of Israel’s first software companies, who approached Levine after she addressed a World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, a couple of years ago: “What’s a nice Jewish girl like you climbing Mount Everest? What did you mother say?”
Levine’s reply: “She said to take a coat.”
Curt Schleier is a frequent contributor to the Forward.