What would you do if you were outside and needed to get a better vantage point to see what is around you? Odds are you would seek a point of higher ground. You could climb a staircase to go to the top of a building. Or, find a hill and hike to the top. Maybe there is a tall tree with low hanging branches you can climb to getter a better view. These all sound like reasonable options, but what if you were in an area with no buildings, trees or hills? You are in a flat, barren environment, with no apparent construction materials to assist in your desire to seek a higher perspective. How do you get higher than the view from ground you are standing on?
The Northern Slope of Alaska is by most definitions a harsh and unforgiving environment. It is situated 350 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Yes, 350 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The nearest mountains are 100 miles to the south. From a topographical perspective, it is as flat and barren as land can be, as it stretches to the Arctic Ocean. There are no trees and it is generally void of vegetation, as the soil is in a permafrost state. Yet, the Iñupiat people have thrived in this region for generations.
How did they gain a higher perspective to be on the lookout to hunt for caribou, whales, and polar bears? How could they watch for threats to their villages? They had nothing to climb, so they developed an alternative. Launch a person high into the air!
This “Blanket Toss,” as it is ceremoniously referred to today, is performed using a large sheet of seal hides woven together. This is the same sheet they use to cover the hulls of their fishing boats. Village members gather around the edge of the sheet to pull it taught. One person, we will call them the scout, climbs into the middle of the sheet. Then, the people around the edge, in synchrony, move the sheet up and down creating momentum before thrusting up and launching the scout almost 30 feet in the air. The scout is able to see much farther during their short flight before landing back into the taut sheet. This action is repeated until the sought perspective is obtained.
The ability to gain a higher perspective, to see a vision of what is beyond the horizon, is a task charged to leaders. A leader must see what is around. They must see the opportunities for growth and profit, as well threats to their market share and products or services. At times, they must get elevated from the daily grind, to see this broader vantage point.
However, as I coach leaders, they often lament that they cannot find the time to focus on their strategic vision. Their calendars are filled with meetings and other tasks which hinder their ability to mentally take flight and survey the horizon for opportunities and threats, even though most leaders realize that failing to think strategically results in a grim prognosis, at best.
The solution to this challenge lies in a leader’s’ assessment of how well they execute the core principles that make the blanket toss work.
First, there must be complete trust among all involved. Most acutely, trust by the scout toward their team of supporters holding the blanket. They are entirely dependent on the ground team not only for an effective launch, but also a safe return to the ground. The team members gripping the blanket must also trust each other to execute their role successfully for not only safety, but an effective outcome. Remember, the success of the village depends on the success of the toss. If the toss fails, then valuable food may not be obtained or close dangers unknown. Their group survival is interconnected. Trust is essential.
Second, each individual must know their role and how their role is connected to the desired outcome. Imagine if a few individuals did not fully understand that they were required to remain attentive and hold the blanket until the scout safely returned to the ground. What if they felt they had completed the task after the launch, dropped the blanket, and proceeded with their other duties? This would be catastrophic. The role must be clarified completely, as well as connected with the desired objective or outcome.
Third, there must be a willingness to work together to establish an appropriate rhythm among the team members. Again, imagine if each team member was performing their role independently. You would observe the blanket haphazardly moving up and down. People are performing their roles to move the blanket. There is activity. Yet, the independent movements will not synergize into a single powerful launch. There may even be clear communication among sections of the blanket, which may result in a rocking motion of the blanket. Nevertheless, pockets of communication cannot substitute for clear and precise communication across all members of a team or organization. Complete and frequent communication must occur for effective collaboration.
The Blanket Toss teaches us that a leader who is willing to trust of their team, clarify roles and responsibilities, and encourage frequent clear communication will find a foundation from which to launch their continued assessment of strategy and vision. We can only gain the higher perspective for strategy with the support of our team.
Answer the following questions to assess your application of these principles.
Note: This article was originally published on LinkedIn
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