Complacency Leads To Extinction

By Alison Levine

“Complacency leads to extinction.” I first heard this exact phrase when I started working at Goldman Sachs. It’s one of the firm’s 14 business principles that every employee is expected to l

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ive and breathe by. Little did I know how often those same words would reverberate through my head when I was working outside of the office too – like when I was high up on some mountain trying to navigate through some VERY sketchy terrain or while I was lugging a 150lb sled for 600-miles during a ski traverse across west Antarctica on my way to the geographic South Pole. Now, keep in mind, I was an adventurer long before I began working on Wall Street, but working at Goldman made me realize how much the skills I learned in the mountains could help me survive in the business world, and vice versa – the skills I learned sitting at my desk have definitely helped me get through many challenging situations in some of the world’s harshest environments.

The first time I realized that complacency really could kill me was when I was navigating through an area on Mt Everest called the Khumbu Icefall. The Khumbu Icefall is where most of the accidents occur on Mt Everest, and I found it to be the %$#*ing scariest part of the climb. This section of the route is basically 2000 vertical feet of these gargantuan ice chunks – and these monster ice blocks are the size of school buses (or maybe even BIGGER). And the crazy thing about this icefall is that it is in constant motion – and it moves at a rate of FOUR FEET per day. So as the sun comes up and things start to melt, these ice chunks shift around which means you are in constant danger of being crushed. Oh, and you are between 18,000ft and 20,000ft of elevation.

Okay, now if that weren’t enough, there are also these big huge open crevasses (openings in the glaciers) everywhere which means you could fall hundreds of feet to your death – and the only way to get across them is by walking along these shaky aluminum ladders that will get you from one side of the crevasse to the other (hint: Don’t look down). So between the constantly shifting ice blocks and the open crevasses and trying to squeeze oxygen into and out of your lungs at high altitude -- it is a VERY SCARY part of the route. It is also where I learned one of the best lessons about business and about life which is this: FEAR IS OKAY. BUT COMPLACENCY WILL KILL YOU.

If you are not moving quickly and adeptly through that icefall and you just hang out and relax, you stand a much higher chance of getting crushed by a massive slab of ice that has shifted during the day as the area starts to melt. You have to keep moving, you have to keep going. When you sit around and you choose to do nothing – that is when you are putting yourself at risk. Sure, this part of the route is beyond scary, but as I said, fear is okay. It’s just a normal human emotion. I think fear is good -- it’s a great motivator, it keeps you alert and awake and hyper-aware of your surroundings. Don’t ever beat yourself up for feeling scared or intimidated. But definitely hit yourself in the head with a sock full of quarters (or whatever other home-made device you can come up with to inflict a lot of pain without drawing blood) if you ever find yourself becoming complacent – because you are putting yourself and your team at great risk.

Of all the callers we heard from tonight, the one thing that they all had in common was that none of them were complacent. They all wanted to be architects of change within their organizations – they all wanted to improve things, to take risks and to try new direction. A few of them did seem a tad bit nervous and scared – but they were all using the adrenaline from that fear to move forward. One of the points I made tonight on the show was that as a leader, in addition to having a vision of where you want your organization to be, you also need to have a plan on how to get there. You need to break everything down into manageable steps. Sure, you can say, “I want to be a $50 million company in x amount of time” – just like you can say, “I want to climb Mt Everest” or “I want to ski to the South Pole.”

But if you are the leader, you better have a plan that can get you there. Break everything down into manageable pieces for yourself and for your team – otherwise it might feel overwhelming if you just set a goal and no one knows how to reach it. Don’t just think about getting to the summit of the mountain -- think about how you are going to get your team to Base Camp. Figure that part out first. Then figure out what you need to do to get your team from Base Camp to Camp 1. Then from Camp 1 to Camp 2, and so on. Move up the mountain in stages. And remember, sometimes the environment is going to cooperate and sometimes it isn’t. There will always be things that are totally out of your control – but look at that as part if the challenge and part of the fun. You might get blown around and beat up a little bit, but work through the pain (a little pain never hurt anyone). Keep your bearings during the storms, and remember that there is absolutely no such thing as a storm that lasts forever, there just isn’t! At some point, the winds will die down, the clouds will subside and you’ll see blue skies again. But you have to be willing to get out there and really push yourself up the mountain, and you have to be willing to weather the storms if you are ever going to have the opportunity to enjoy the views from the top.