During the past 18 months, we’ve found ourselves adjusting to an ever-changing world. We’ve never been more reliant on, and comforted by, leaders who exude trust in extreme situations.
Imagine the leadership advice we could get if we picked the collective brains of women like Vernice “Flygirl” Armour, the first black woman combat pilot in the U.S. Marines, Danelle Barrett, a former Rear Admiral who spent more than 30 years in the U.S. Navy and Alison Levine, the captain of the first American Women’s Everest Expedition and faculty member at West Point.
The DealmakeHers, a group of the most impactful female dealmakers in the retail and consumer space, did just that. Phyllis Newhouse, a powerhouse CEO who spent more than 20 years in the U.S. Army, led an empowering discussion about the challenges these women have faced in the highest levels of the military and extreme sports, the leadership skills they’ve honed and how best to apply these skills to the world of deal making. Here is what we learned:
Believe in the tangibility of the possibility, says Armour. The self-proclaimed “chief breakthrough officer” set her goals early (she wanted to be a cop and meet Oprah), believed they were achievable and created a clear and actionable path to achieve them. Alison Levine, who has climbed to the highest peak on all seven continents, agrees. “If you want to know what it’s like to go the South Pole, stop reading about other people doing it and do it yourself.”
Failure can be fertilizer. Levine missed the Everest summit by fewer than 300 feet on her first attempt. The high-profile “failure” (her team was sponsored by Ford Motor Company) could have easily crushed her confidence, but instead she chose to reframe how she perceived failure. She says accept (but don’t dwell on) failure as you try new things – it’s normal and helps eliminate the fear of trying. “Failure is a point in time and that one point shouldn’t define you.” Levine summited Everest 8 years later.
Educate through performance. Barrett doesn’t believe in limiting or defining herself or her abilities by gender. “I never wanted to be a woman in the military; I just wanted to be an officer.” Newhouse feels the same way about age. “In your 50s and 60s you have enough in your toolkit to go back and help you understand risk from a different perspective based on the experiences you’ve already had.” Adopting this mindset in the boardroom and at the negotiating table will redirect the focus to what you can do rather than who you are.
Climb and retreat. In preparation for the ascent to the Everest summit, Levine’s group climbed partway up the mountain and then descended back to base camp several times. This helped acclimatize them to the conditions and familiarize them with the mountain. Although the descent each day seemed counterproductive as they were walking away from their goal, it was all part of the process that led to their ultimate success. The same strategy can be applied in the workplace. Expect some setbacks – it’s normal and in most cases, helpful. Appreciate that climbing down the mountain may make the next ascent easier.
Don’t play a game you don’t know. Newhouse says effective leadership always requires that you operate at your highest level. It’s important to be humble and recognize when you are unable to do that and give yourself permission to hand the authority to someone else better equipped to lead.
Emotions are contagious, says Levine, so make sure you convey what you want your team to feel. While she was physically the smallest on her polar expedition team, she was hailed a leader for her ability to spread positivity, enthusiasm and humor.
Transform your fear to fuel. When channeled properly, suggests Armour, fear can really drive action rather than paralyze us into inaction. And it is possible to be scared and brave at the same time – it’s called being “gutsy.” The key to turning fear into fuel is to gather as much intel as possible and be decisive in your decision making. Then assess your results and be willing to pivot quickly if necessary. And if all else fails, Armour suggests settling your nerves by remembering this: “For most of us, the worst-case scenario never actually happens.”
Complacency kills. While it’s ok to feel fear, it’s never ok to feel complacent. Leadership is deliberate, explains Barrett, so it’s important to always stay informed and be ready to pivot when necessary. She stresses the importance of having the humility to step back and make a course change if necessary, or as Armour says, be ready to “reassess, reimagine, reinvent, reinvigorate, re-engage and reattack.”
Show up with your value card, says Newhouse. It’s important to understand what special skills you bring to the table and bring them every time. Armour prides herself on being decisive. Barrett says she’s a transformational change agent and Levine calls herself the Chief Encourager. Identify your special strengths and be prepared to sell them.
While most of us won’t climb Everest or fly combat helicopters, we all find ourselves in various positions of leadership. Many of the skills we use to be effective leaders translate well to the negotiating table. Be confident, remain gutsy and take well-calculated risks. “Not taking a risk is a risk,” says Armour. “If Blockbuster had bought Netflix, they wouldn’t be in a museum today.”