Paving The Way

Alison Levine, the first American Women's Everest Expedition team captain and author of “On the Edge,” is no stranger to leading a team through perilous situations. She's used to battling extreme environments, and in addition to Everest, she became the first American to complete an arduous expedition to the South Pole while hauling a sled packed with geared that outweighed her.  

Levine closed out the 2018 Women Of The Channel east event in New York by sharing her story about her challenging – and physically taxing -- journey to the South Pole, and the lessons she learned along the way. Levine told attendees how to help people look past their shortcomings, discover hidden talents, and the lesser-known attributes of a good leader.

Here are three things that every good leader should keep in mind.  

"It’s a leader's responsibility to help everyone feel like a valued member of the team."

Once on her skis in Antarctica, Levine struggled to pull her 150-pound sled that each team member had tethered to their bodies as they crossed the snowy terrain for hours on skis each day. After five days of falling behind, causing her teammates to face dangerous temperatures while having to wait for her to catch up, Levine overheard the team's leader and another teammate talking about her. They both said they felt bad to see her struggle, so they planned to lighten her load. The next morning, under the guise of weighing everyone's sled to make sure they all weighed the correct amount, her two teammates said that her sled was much too heavy and offloaded some of her food and supplies into their own sleds.

"I overhead them talking about how to support me, instead of talking badly about me," Levine said. "[My leader] sent me such a strong message that he wanted me on the team and he really valued me, and that completely changed my outlook."

"Think and act like a leader, regardless of title or tenure."

Each day, Levine's team leader would select a teammate to be out in front to lead and direct the group on their hours-long trek, rather than lead the pack himself. This leader was responsible for breaking new trail and assessing danger. When she was asked to lead the group, Levine told her leader that she didn’t think it was a good idea because she felt like she wasn't a strong navigator. Levine's leader insisted.

"I knew he was right behind me," she said. "It did empower me, and it forced me to get better at my navigation skills and continue with the mission."

"People are going to have weaknesses they're never going to overcome, but you can always compensate for that." 

Levine, who is petite in size and stature, was never going to be able to haul the same 150-pound load strapped to her waist as the men in her group who were double her weight, but she found a way to make up for it. Levine recalls insisting on shoveling a snow barrier around the tent -- a job that had to be done each night to help protect the tent from strong wind gusts -- because she was closer to the ground, and therefore, shoveling was easier for her than it was for the taller men in her group. She knew that carrying some of her weight was an extra burden for them and so she found a way to repay them that took advantage of the strengths she had that they didn't. When the team arrived back in Chile after the completion of their expedition, she came clean that she offered to shovel not because she loved shoveling -- something she had told them at the time -- but because she had overheard them figuring out a way to help her lighten her load and she wanted to carry her own weight. Her leader hadn't realized she overhead and had intended only to help her feel like a valued member of the team. He told her he'd do another expedition with her anytime, and it was a "lightbulb moment" for her about being a good leader.

"You just have to be you. People will always have weaknesses, but it's the job of a leader to help them compensate for those."