On the Edge

By Kevin Ryan, Esq.

I said last time that I would write a series of posts describing some of what I learned at the National Association of Bar Executives annual meeting in San Francisco last week. This was to fulfill a promise to the ever-vigilant Liz, who I think was concerned that, if I didn’t give some indication that I was actually awake in the substantive sessions, readers would think I was simply wandering the streets of San Francisco, reliving the Sixties (perhaps one toke over the line). I think she thought that I needed to prove that I picked up some useful stuff sitting in a chair, rather than by wearing out shoe leather, that I was not just a peripatetic in search of enlightenment outside the hotel conference rooms. OK, so here goes.

Conferences often feature big (or biggish) name plenary speakers with slick presentations designed to teach you something they have learned from whatever it is they do. You know the sort: people who have been successful in one kind of endeavor and are here to tell you that what they learned in, say, the tech industry or golf applies to whatever you do, no matter how dissimilar it may be. The so-called lessons tend to be simplistic and banal – on the order of “try hard,” or “keep a positive attitude.” Duh. And it is remarkable how alike the lessons taught by these speakers are – seldom, it seems, does anyone offer anything really original, though the colorful illustrative stories may differ. What the rest of us really learn, I suspect, is that one can make a ton of money saying things that have been said before (over and over).

Athletes are particularly common among such speakers – women and men who have done well at their sport, cashing in on fame after their playing career (or even during it) by telling us stuff we already know. Their hearers must get some thrill out of seeing and hearing a star, even if there’s nothing really new to learn from the star’s experience. I’ve been to coaches conventions where some unknown college coach says to take a deep breath before each pitch (a good practice, by the way) and the (sparse) audience merely nods. But when some major leaguer gets up and says exactly the same thing (usually not as well, and too often filtered through a war story or two), the (huge) audience sits up, takes note (and notes), and afterwards throngs the stage (stars are generally on stages, not just at the front of the room) for a brush with greatness. Star status forgives sins, especially the sin of having nothing new to say.

And so when I saw that the first plenary speaker at the NABE annual meeting in San Francisco was going to be a mountain climber, I thought, “Here we go again.” But I was wrong.

Alison Levine has climbed the tallest peaks on each of the seven continents – the so-called Seven Summits. She’s climbed Everest twice (long and touching story). She has skied to both the North and South poles, making her one of only thirty or so people to have completed the so-called Adventure Grand Slam (the seven peaks and the two poles). She speaks movingly about the lessons of mountain climbing, lessons that translate into life lessons, work lessons, organizational management lessons. (See her book, On the Edge.) Levine is a truly exceptional athlete, in some ways far more impressive than some dude who has simply learned to hit a curveball hard one out of every three times he’s thrown one. And I learned afterwards, when looking at her book, that she actually has considerable practical experience in the business world (Goldman Sachs), as well as graduate degrees and consulting experience, so she’s not just offering lessons for a world she doesn’t know, as so many of these athlete-orators do.

Alison Levine at the South Pole.

Alison Levine at the South Pole.

As could be expected, some of the principles Levine has gleaned from her experience on the mountain differ not a whit from the standard truisms that populate the leadership literature. Network – on Mt. Everest a good network of relationships can save your life, as she explains. Nobody gets to the top by themselves – we all depend for our success on other members of our team, on those not on our team but with whom we have developed positive relations, on those who are hired (like Sherpas) to carry our baggage and lay out our ladders. Be relentless in pursuit of your goals. We don’t need an extreme climber to tell us these things – we already know them; we hear them all the time; we say them to ourselves.

What struck me about Levine, however, was that some of her lessons were unorthodox, offbeat, edgy, counterintuitive. They were not – at least not all of them – the same lessons we could have heard from boxers, synchronized swimmers, or washed-up CEOs.

For instance . . . In a world in which organizations tend to be structured hierarchically, Levine contends that everyone on the team must be a leader. Success, she tells us, depends upon the ability and willingness of everyone to step up from time to time, to take charge when needed, to make the tough decisions. This is as important among citizens as it is among staff members, as crucial for lawyers as for mountain climbers. Sure, some people may have a title or a status, but when the chips are down, everybody on the team must be able to lead. The implications of this might be truly revolutionary, for if everyone is a leader, no one deserves to be treated as more special because of their title (as Levine puts it, “Your mother lied to you – you’re not special”). This is a call for true democracy. Following Levine’s idea, perhaps beyond where she would take it, one could end up with “holacracy,” the notion that structural hierarchy should be flattened to take advantage of the insights and leadership potential of everyone in an organization. Bye-bye CEO. Bye-bye executive director.

And what does it take to be a good leader? Levine points out that a real leader takes action based on the situation rather than based on some “plan” decided upon under different circumstances. This is important because, as she puts it, you have “zero control” over the circumstances. While you can’t control your environment, you can control how you react to the environment – a common theme among “mental game” coaches but one rarely heard outside the world of sports. It’s a theme that many business leaders and association executives fail to heed when they adhere rigorously to their “strategic plans” even in the face of significant changes in the circumstances. As association management expert Mary Byers puts it, we should think in terms of “strategic frameworks” that set guidelines for action, rather than strategic plans that specify what you will and won’t do under all circumstances.

But Levine pushes even closer to the edge on this point, for she doesn’t believe in rigorous adherence to the rules. There are always situations when you need to break the rules, Levine tells us. Of course, she doesn’t mean ethical rules, and she’s not counseling illegal activity. But she is calling into question our sheep-like tendency to follow the paths laid down. Rigidity, she argues, is dangerous. And leaders should not be the only ones permitted to break the rules to achieve better outcomes; that same freedom should be extended to the people on their teams, who must be given the power to be flexible when, in their judgment, it is for the good of the organization. Everyone on the team (remember, everyone is expected to be a leader) should use their judgment and do the right thing – no matter what the “rules” say. Rules, then, should be treated as guiding principles, as suggestions rather than absolutes. We are not robots (yet) and should not act like robots when the situation requires us to be nimble.

Mount everest

Of course, when team members have that kind of freedom, some mistakes will be made – one hopes not too many of them, especially at 28,000 feet. Mistakes, however, do not spell the end of the world; most are minor and, more importantly, they provide us with opportunities to learn. Great hitters might be fooled once or twice, might look like clowns at the plate sometimes, but they learn from their mistakes, adjust their approach, and hit the ball hard the next at-bat. The great performers in any context – mountain climbers, teachers, gymnasts, business leaders, administrative assistants, lawyers – are not people who don’t make mistakes; they make their fair share. Instead, they are people who “come back with a vengeance” from their mistakes. Leaders should give their team members the “freedom to fail” – a lesson Levine attributes to former Heisman Trophy winner, Rhodes scholar, combat leader, general, and CEO Pete Dawkins. People with perfect track records, she says, are people who haven’t pushed themselves. And don’t we prefer to work with people who regularly push themselves? If so, we need to accept their failures as well as their successes; we need to stop expecting perfection from others (and from ourselves).

Generally, we pursue progress, growth, development; we find them good. And Levine doesn’t disagree. But she points out that forward movement is often composed of many steps backward. She describes how, when scaling a mountain as imposing as Everest, the climbers slowly work their way up the mountain, returning to base camp after each increase in elevation, climbing back-and-forth as they acclimate themselves to the altitude. They go from base camp to camp 1 and back to base camp, then to camp 2 and back to base, then to camp 3 and back to base, and so on. So, climbing a mountain does not involve a steady progress upwards; at times it seems you spend more time climbing down than climbing up. Sometimes you need to back up to go further; sometimes you need to give up what you’ve accomplished so that you can go beyond it. And, contrary to most business and career advice, “backing up is not the same as backing down.”

Levine also makes the point that things may be riskiest when they seem to be going well. “Complacency,” she says, “will kill you.” In other words, when you think you’ve got it mastered, when you think you’ve got it under control, when things are calm and the sailing is smooth, that’s when you are most at risk. Partially, this stems from the ways complacency makes you lackadaisical and sloppy in your preparation. It makes you take your eye off the ball, like the shortstop who muffs an easy grounder or a wide receiver who drops a perfect pass in the open field. Partially, it stems from the ways complacency makes you mentally lazy and uncritical; it makes you “space out,” lose your focus, and lose your edge. It makes you switch into auto-pilot when attention to the controls is most needed.

As should be obvious, Levine offers principles for a nimble, agile, flexible organization capable of coping and thriving in an ever-changing environment – exactly the kind of organization most likely to succeed in the next decade. Her lessons apply to law firms and other businesses, to bar associations and sports teams. Unlike so many speakers I’ve heard, she really had something new to teach, something out of the ordinary, something that might sting you into rethinking your presuppositions about organizations, leadership, and the path to success. In short, this was not just another super-slick, star speaker. Alison Levine encourages us to live on the edge, just as she did on the way to the top of Everest.

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