An Interview with Alison Levine [Video]

This past spring, I had the privilege of hosting the Chick-fil-A Leadercast Backstage program. I interviewed several notable authors as they came off the stage, including Seth Godin, Sir Ken Robinson, Dan Cathy, John Maxwell, and Frans Johansson. I am continuing to share these on a weekly basis.

In this interview, I talk to Alison Levine, an amazing woman that I met for the first time. Her life is an eloquent testimony to the fact that, despite physical challenges, you can accomplish extraordinary things—especially if you are persistent.

Here’s a quick list of her accomplishments:

  • Alison served as the team captain of the first American Women’s Everest Expedition.
  • She skied across the Arctic Circle to the geographic North Pole.
  • She made history as the first American to complete a 600-mile journey from west Antarctica to the South Pole.
  • She completed the Adventure Grand Slam—climbing the Seven Summits (highest peak on each continent) and skiing to both Poles, an accomplishment fewer than thirty people in the world can claim.

And get this: she accomplished all this despite the fact that she has had three heart surgeries and suffers from a neurological disease that causes the arteries that feed her fingers and toes to collapse in cold weather, leaving her at extreme risk for frostbite. Wow.

In this four-minute clip, I ask her about her first attempt to summit Mt. Everest in 2002. She led the first women’s team ever to attempt this feat. All the major media were covering her expedition. Ford Motor Company was a major sponsor. Talk about pressure! Yet, she made the tough decision to turn back just 200 feet from the summit.

Though heart-breaking, she didn’t give up. She came back to Mt. Everest in 2010 at the age of 44 with another team. This time, they successfully reached the summit.

Alison is now an adjunct professor at the United States Military Academy at West Point. She specializes in the field of “leadership in extreme environments.” In this interview, we talk about her experience. I asked:

  • How was your second attempt to climb Mt. Everest different than the first?
  • What was it like to make the decision to quit so close to the goal, especially as the team leader?
  • Did you ever second-guess your decision to turn around? How do you feel about it now?
  • What do you do when life blows apart your carefully-crafted plans?
Question: What do you take away from Alison’s comments in terms of your own leadership? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
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  • Alan Kay

    Lots of learning from Allison, thanks. 
    Climbing a mountain gives you one simple, clear goal – get to the top and back down again. Having a clear plan is critical in that hostile environment, but implementing it will be very different from what you anticipate. Make the most of what’s in front of you while keeping the goal front and centre. Not achieving your goal isn’t a mistake (Allison got back down safely). It’s about learning so you can  achieve  future goals. Part of the goal should be learning that enriches future.  

    • Michael Hyatt

      Exactly. I think that’s so much of what she has to teach. She does a great job of applying what she learned to other contexts.

  • Wade Fahnestock

    What an outstanding video message to start the week! I especially appreciate the comments concerning our plans. Sure, we plan, but life happens. It’s as if our best laid plans become obsolete once we begin, because they are based on our best guesses of how our environment will be when we reach the end of the plan. We must hold fast to our plan with the end in mind, yet be flexible enough to account for unexpected changes along the way. In my experience, I call it being “pastoral” or “led by the Spirit vs. letter of the law.” Thanks for sharing!

    Fr. Wade+
    Lakeland, FL

    • Michael Hyatt

      I liked that, too. I have rarely had my plans “go without a hitch.” They usually blow up—and you adjust!

      • John Richardson

        So true, Michael. When they do go without a hitch I often wonder what is wrong… did I miss something?

    • Joe Lalonde

      Wade, that was one of my favorite parts of the interview too. Being flexible and knowing when to change plans is part of being a true leader.

    • Jim Hardy

      Great point. There are so many things that could go wrong, but she just kept believing.


  • John Richardson

    One of the hardest experiences of life… to make it so close and then have to turn around. I think we have all been there. What a frustrating experience. It’s exciting to hear that she didn’t give up and eight years later was able to successfully climb the mountain. I have seen this so much in racing and in all types of sporting events. No one remembers who comes in second. It’s drive and passion that keeps the best coming back year after year. Whether it is a Super Bowl Ring or a NASCAR trophy, overcomers always find a way back.

  • Jamie (Lionstand)

    Wow! Great advice from Alison. I loved her comment on focusing more on execution rather than on planning. 

    It is a timely comment for me to hear too. 

    Last night at my church, we had Dr. Mark Rutland, the president of Oral Roberts University speak and he emphasized on not focusing all of your emotional and psychological energy on the great plan for your life but on your assignment for today.

    While I love to dream and write out goals in every area of my life, it is fitting then to focus intently on executing those goals.

    • Michael Hyatt

      I agree. Execution is the difference-maker. I am met many dreamers and schemers. But only one in a hundred can execute.

      • Jamie (Lionstand)

        Mark Batterson’s book, “In a Pit with a Lion on a Snowy Day” is a great read on learning to execute.

        Appreciate all you do Mike.

        • Anonymous

          I’ve read some of Mark’s other books, but never that one.  Thanks for the recommendation.

          • Jamie (Lionstand)

            You’re welcome. 

            If I could describe what that book did for me it would be that, “it punched my apathy in the face.” :)

          • Anonymous

            That’s a great line! I’ll probably plagiarize it later! :-)

          • Jamie (Lionstand)

            Plagiarize away! ;-)

          • Robert Ewoldt

            Ha ha :)

        • Joe Lalonde

          Thanks for mentioning that book Jamie. I’ve added it to my book wishlist.

          • Jamie (Lionstand)

            You’re welcome Joe.

        • Jim Hardy

          One of my favorite sayings is don’t confuse activity with execution. Mark’s book is a great read.


          • Jamie (Lionstand)

            I quite like that. It’s a very challenging statement.

            It will force you to think about every action you are doing, living life on purpose.

            Thanks for sharing that Jim. I really appreciate it.

  • Sundi Jo Graham

    His power is made perfect in our weakness. 

  • Robert Ewoldt

    If you’re plans come together exactly as expected every time, then you’re probably not setting big enough goals.  I heard recently that there are some companies that look specifically for people who have failed in something, because that shows that they’ve set a goal for themselves that could go wrong… they pushed themselves to find how far they could go.

  • Anonymous

    Love the video interviews.. rather than reflect on Alison’s comments around leadership – your last questions is the most interesting for me – what if the plan that gets blown apart is your carefully-crafted life plan..  

    Integrating Allison’s wisdom around the subject of a life plan, and the execution of that plan, is what I take away most from this one.. planning is essential and more about the future, however responding intelligently is critical, and is much more about the reality of the ‘now’.

    Thanks again Michael,

    • Michael Hyatt

      Good observation. And to be sure, your life plan will be blown apart. But it’s like having a map. You can always get back on-track.

  • JosiahG

    Great interview! Regarding planning, we do have to plan to change our plans when circumstances change. We also need to make sure there is no confusion with our team about our plans and goals. We have to ensure we communicate well – not sporadically,  continuously.

    • Robert Ewoldt

      Yes… we make a plan, knowing that sometimes our plans change. We can’t be locked in to one plan that will never change.

  • W. Mark Thompson

    Great lesson: Execution over Planning. Pretty powerful when we take into consideration how much we plan compared to actual execution. Makes me step back and look at the big picture. Thanks for sharing.

  • Barrykevingoza

    I know that one of the biggest leadership mistakes I tend to make is ignoring the environment once the plan is made! What makes my plan THE plan? Great reminder to always look at the conditions around you as you execute, then adjust if necessary!

  • Anonymous

    Great points Allison.

    I really liked what she said about the communication on the mountain. It shows us that communication is not all about being verbal. But also about knowing your people and the non verbal. Thank you for sharing mike.

  • Ricky Lewis

    Great stuff. I’m seeing this play out in so many ways in my non-profit with teens and dealings with some family stuff right now. Both are requiring a plan AND constant adjustment to the ever changing scenarios I face working with difficult people. 

    Thanks, Michael, for posting this. It is a great reminder that it requires the ability to plan and yet deal with circumstances to be a good leader. And sometimes it means deciding to step back to be able to go forward later.

  • levittmike

    Powerful and inspiring to all of us.  I love these videos!  Blessings on your week

  • Anonymous

    Powerful video! Thanks so much for sharing!!!

  • Pingback: Executing: More Important Than Planning | The Overwhelmed Woman()

  • Anonymous

    It took more courage to turn back the first time than it took to finish the second time.


    “…whatever plan you have in the morning is going to be outdated by the afternoon.”

    More focused on execution instead of planning.

    Very inspiring.  Can’t wait to check out her website.

    • Jim Hardy

      You are correct. That is such a great quote. Everyone should add that to their list.


  • Joe Lalonde

    It sounds like Alison is one amazing woman. She’s accomplished and overcome things most men wish that they could. Congrats on your accomplishments Alison!

    Here’s a couple of things I liked from the interview –

    Once you’ve gotten the snot kicked out of you, it’s not so scary anymore: It’s refreshing to see someone that has faced such extreme circumstances come back and conquer what once defeated them. So often people see turning back or giving up as final. It’s not, you can go back and retry it.

    You can always go back: I talked about this with the first point. As long as you’re alive, you can always attempt it again. There’s no point in killing yourself when you can turn around and attempt it later.

    Action based on the situation not on the plan: This I think was the best point of the whole interview. So often leaders think they need to stick to the plan. However, it’s all about adapting to the situation. No matter how much you plan, there will always be unforeseen situations.

    • Robert Ewoldt

      Yes, sometimes it’s so hard to give up on your plan, especially if it’s one that you worked so hard on for a long time. But sometimes that’s just what you need to do.

  • Chaz Smith

    I love her enthusiasm! When you accomplish goals and overcome fears, as she has, your message is contagious! Thank you for sharing!
    -Chaz Smith   

    • Robert Ewoldt

      I think that enthusiasm is one of the most compelling things. In fact, I think it was one of the suggestions that I read in “The Ultimate Sales Machine.”

  • Nancy

    Such wisdom, executing verses planning. Life happens!

  • Chris Tawney

     Mike, thanks for sharing Allison’s story. I’ve know Allison for a long time. Her story is very inspirational. The person you see on the screen is the same person in real life.

    She is an inspiration for so many people (especially women). It’s great to watch her career continue to soar.

    Thanks for helping to tell her story.

    • Michael Hyatt

      She was really inspiring to me, that’s for sure. I only wish I had had longer for the interview. Thanks.

      • Robert Ewoldt

        That was something I wished, too… that the interview would have been longer.

  • Jim Hardy

    I love her speech at the conference. Very inspiring and motivational.

  • Joe Abraham

    I like what Allison mentioned about following the plan: focus on the execution; don’t just hold on to the once-beneficial-but-now-outdated plan! (that’s my version of her statement). 

    Yes, update plans to reach the goal!

  • Uma Maheswaran S

    That was a great motivator. Her life spells about the power of purpose  and persistence in our life.

  • TNeal

    Sorry to arrive so late to the party. I was brushing my teeth and got a spot of toothpaste on my shirt. It took forever to find a second clean one.

    I’m thankful I peeked in to see what was happening with the guests. Good interview. Great takeaway.

    Although not explicit in the interview, but implicit in the conversation was the simple message that wise choices lead to second chances. Alison’s decision in 2002, a wise choice, lead to a second attempt at success.