Make the Tough Calls

What's harder for a strong leader: sticking out a tough situation, or cutting your losses and walking away?


As Alison Levine, a history-making polar explorer and mountaineer, explains, sometimes the most important decisions can also be the toughest. Leaders have to step into the place that is best for the team, and not just best for them, and make key decisions even in the most trying of circumstances. Alison illustrates this by sharing experiences of difficult decisions made in the midst of climbing Mt. Everest.

Watch this video and think about what tough calls you've had to make as a leader.

The other interesting thing that happened is that at 6:30 in the morning storm clouds started to come in. That's where we had to make a very tough call. That is the summit of Mount Everest, and that right there is where we turned around to go down. Trust me when I tell you that turning around and walking away from the deal is harder than continuing on, but when you're up there in these mountains, you have to be able to make very tough decisions when the conditions around you are far from perfect. You have to think about how every single move you make is going to affect everybody else around you and not just you. And it doesn't matter how much blood, sweat and tears you put into something. The conditions aren't right, you've got to cut your losses, turn around and walk away.

Mount Everest is just a pile of rock and ice. That's really all it is. You can always go back. You do something dumb up there, you may not have the opportunity to go back. We all know of instances where one individual's poor judgment has brought down an entire organization. Same thing in the mountains. One person's bad judgment can take out an entire team.

Got a bit of a break the next day. We were able to start heading back down to base camp. Right? Get back down to a lower, safer camp. And it's really easy to think, when you're coming down the mountain, that there's no more risk, right? Because you're going downhill, the terrain is easier, it's warmer. It's easier to breath. But what you have to remember is that even when things feel calm, there's still risk. This climb is not over until you walk in the front door of your house.

So the Khumbu Icefall, remember that area with all the big huge moving ice chunks and the open crevasses, we'd gone through that thing seven times with no problem. Eighth time, completely different story. Jody and I, one of my climbing partners, was out in front, and the rest of the team was just a few minutes behind us. All of a sudden we heard this sound like, I don't know, a big moving freight train or something. We turned around only to see 10,000 tons of ice. This big, huge ice avalanche was coming crashing down, and we thought for sure we were going to be crushed so we were trying to figure out how to get out of the way.

You can't run in that ice fall, remember, because there are all those open crevasses and the ladders that you have to cross really slowly and carefully. So we were completely freaking out. There was this video guy there from National Geographic, and he saw us panicking so he looked over to us and he yelled to us. He just yelled, "Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Don't move. Don't move. Stay where you are. Stay right where you are." Jody and I grabbed each other and we were shaking and crying and hyperventilating, and the whole ice crumble came to a stop about five feet from us. That's how close we were to getting killed. It was really scary, like clean up on aisle four kind of scary.

So we're completely freaking out and I look over at this guy and I said, "Oh my gosh, how did you stay so calm?" I'll never forget it because he looked right at me and he said, "Oh, I knew it was going to be okay." And I'm thinking, "Wow, how could he know that?" He was right there in the ice field with us. He almost got killed as well. About a month later I was laughing my head off because I read this article he wrote online about the day the Khumbu Icefall collapsed. He described the whole sequence of events in this article, and I thought it was so funny because he wrote, "Jody and Alison panicked and looked for somewhere to run, but I urged them to remain calm because I knew for sure we were all going to die."

Alison Levine

Alison Levine is a history-making polar explorer and mountaineer. She served as team captain of the first American Women’s Everest Expedition, climbed the highest peak on each continent, and skied to both the North and South Poles—a f...

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