The New England Patriots have played two overtime games in the postseason over the last three years. Both times, they won the coin toss. Both times, they won the game.

Both times, special teams captain Matthew Slater called "heads."

Why? That's just what he always does...and as a team, the Patriots have at least one thing they always do after a win. 

First, they gather in the locker room to hear head coach Bill Belichick talk about the game.

Then, once Belichick is done, the team huddles closer together to hear special teams captain Matthew Slater speak. 

Here's an example from a win last season over the Buffalo Bills:

"Fellas, way to tote that thing," he said. "Way to run that rock. That's a team win now. Team win. We keep doing that, we're going to be all right."

His voice rising, he says, "It's not easy to win 10 games in this league."

And then he yells a question; this is moment the whole team has waited for. "How do we feel about being 10-2?" And Slater and his 52 teammates shout in unison:

"Awww yeah!"

That's it. That's the tradition.

"Awww yeah!"

While "do your job" is arguably the best-known Patriots slogan, it's more like a corporate mantra. Think of "do your job" as top-down.

"Aww yeah!" has a grass-roots, almost accidental origin (which is why it is so effective).

Linebacker Tedy Bruschi first said it during a 2003 pre-season practice. Then, after a win against Philadelphia, running back Antowain Smith looked at Bruschi and said, "Tedy. Break it down. Do that 'Awww yeah!' thing!"

Bruschi says, "To get that, I had to ask a question, to ask them how they feel. 'How do we feel about a victory?!' And the team responded, 'Awww yeah!'

"From there, it just started," Bruschi says.

When Bruschi retired in 2009, other Patriots stepped in. Matt Light. Randy Moss. Tom Brady. And then, starting in 2011, Matthew Slater. Last year, Slater even traveled with the team while injured.

"The good thing this year," says safety Devin McCourty, "is that when Slate hasn't played, he's been there. "It's like, 'All right, do your thing, Slate.' And that's how he is, I think, for this team, he's just a voice that you kind of need."

Slater was elected captain in 2011 and has had this responsibility since.

(And now the Patriots have moved to trademark the phrase, submitting two trademark filings through the USPTO for "clothing, namely, shirts, long-sleeved or short-sleeved T-shirts, athletic shirts, sweatshirts, hooded sweatshirts, hats, caps, and knit hats," and "entertainment services, namely, providing expert commentary on sports events via the Internet.")

Why Does "Awww Yeah!" Matter?

When I worked on a production line, the equipment could only run so fast. As a result, job changeover speed (we called them "makereadies") was extremely important, since that was where the biggest gains in overall throughput could be made.

And that meant on our crew of five operators--as with all the best teams, we were fiercely competitive with other crews but also with each other--you hated to be the last to finish your makeready: If someone fell behind, shouts of, "Waiting on youuu..." echoed across the shop floor.

Yet no one on our crew got mad when "Waiting on youuu..." was directed their way. "Waiting on youuu..." had become a kind of team tradition that signaled excellence and camaraderie: Sometimes I'm fast, sometimes you're fast, but we are a team that only succeeds when we all succeed.

"Waiting on youuu..." worked because it wasn't forced. It wasn't the result of a formal teambuilding initiative. It just happened.

That's why so many top-down corporate mantras don't work. I've been around companies that do formal call-and-response after morning meetings. Others start the day with a cheer.

One plant I visited ended meetings with, "Get stuff done. Have fun!"

Yet those moments all felt forced and rote. When you are told to say something, the words you say lose all their meaning. The slogan just gets added to the list of things you're required to do by people in charge.

"Aww yeah!" has meaning because "Aww yeah!" is reserved for victories. The right to say "Aww yeah!" is earned

It came from the players. Not the coaches. Not the executives. Not the owner.

It's what the players want to do.

Which is why it's become an important part of the Patriots' culture.

Even though culture is built by what you do and not by what you say...even though "Awww yeah!" are just words...it serves as a symbol--and a capstone--for effort, sacrifice, and teamwork.

As a leader, don't spend time trying to create a slogan or a tradition. Put that time into helping your teams succeed.

When they do, they'll come up with their own tradition.

One that has meaning. 

To them.

 Which is what really matters.

Published on: Jan 29, 2019
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.