Culture: The Organizational “12th Man”

Lately, I’ve been juxtaposing my passions to see what ideas would form. When I fused the game of football with principles of leadership, I realized how underutilized the “12th Man” strategy is as a resource for shaping organizational dynamics.

For some, it is the sunlight dappling on brilliantly colored leaves. For others, it is the crisp air so cool and refreshing. For me, the only reason not to weep openly at the passing of summer into autumn is the screech of referee whistles and the giddy feeling I get at the sound of shoulder pads cracking together.

Though a strong supporter of the home team (Bears), I enjoy the sport too much to be limited to one game a week. The Seattle Seahawks are always high on the list of teams to watch because of Matt Hasselbeck*, the gitchy color of their new uniforms, and my fascination with the power of the “12th Man.”stadium

For those of you who prefer sports with diamonds or hoops, in football, 11 men from each team square off against each other on the field. The Seahawks refer to the fans in their stadium as “The 12th Man.” Due to the acoustics of Quest Field, when the spectators join together in full voice, it makes it nearly impossible for the opposing offense to communicate with each other. Watch some time. During the game, members of the Seahawks defense call the “12th man” into action by pushing their hands in the air palms up. This signals the fans to raise the volume to deafening levels. The “12th Man” has become such a force to be reckoned with, other teams prepare for it by blasting music onto their fields during practices.

What I find most compelling about the “12th Man” is that it broadens the point of view from which to consider how the game is played and won. Typically, the twenty-two men battling it out across the line of scrimmage are the center of attention. When the spotlight is on the quarterback, the linemen, and the snap of the ball, the fans in the stadium are merely blurred images on the periphery. However, the “12th Man” is the eye-in-the-sky camera point of view. It encompasses not only the players on the field, but the atmosphere in which they are playing.

In many businesses, the camera is often closely trained on the marginal difference between the line of scrimmage and the first down. It’s a limited ten yard perspective that captures only the players and the voice of the coaches transmitting messages into the quarterback’s helmet. When it comes time to make organizational improvements, it’s important to consider the broadest range of factors. Changing behaviors by changing processes, systems, or incentives neglects the impact of the environment on people’s ability to adopt these new practices. If the organizational culture is not conducive or accepting of the changes, they will not last.12thmanstand

The “12th Man” is not a Seahawk’s creation. It was started in 1922 when the Texas A&M Aggies played Centre College, the nation’s top ranked team. It was a grueling game that depleted the team’s reserve of players. Out of desperation, the Aggies’ coach had E. King Gill, a former football player, suit up and stand by. Gill was never called in but he remained standing at the ready. When the Aggies are down, the fans stand up for the whole game—ready in case the team needs them.

If your business is fighting the good fight, but can’t seem to win, widen your focus beyond the players on the field. Take a look up into the “stands.” Analyze the stadium in which you are playing. Are the prevailing attitudes, accepted norms, beliefs, and behaviors hindering forward progress? Are there changes in the works that are incompatible with the environment in which they are being installed? Or, is the organization’s culture suited up and waiting for leadership to put it in play?


* (he’ll be back!)

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4 responses to “Culture: The Organizational “12th Man”

  1. Awesome blog!

    I thought about starting my own blog too but I’m just too lazy so, I guess Ill just have to keep checking yours out.

    • nicoledefalco

      Hi Savannah, I have to admit that maintaining a blog is more work than I had anticipated. However, I have also found that it is far more rewarding than I had anticipated. Chris Brogan and Julien Smith, in Trust Agents, recommend that if you’re not ready to host a blog of your own, it’s a great start to share your ideas by commenting on other people’s blogs.

      Hope you’ll check back soon.


  2. As we move into the social media realm, I think we now have an even greater force of 12th Men… or make that 12th Twitter followers, 12th Facebook fans, 12th LinkedIn connections.

    We often forget that our customers, fans, followers, and sometimes even competitors (I work with a couple) are or can be members of our team and we should nuture all these relationships–online and off.

    Sorry you like watching the Seahawks. (Go Bears, Colts, Cowboys, Cardinals & Steelers! Plus the NFC North is going to rock this season.)

    • nicoledefalco

      Hi Heidi! Thanks for your input on “12th Man.” I’m such a football nut I watch just about any game that’s on over the weekend! If I’m desperate, I’ll even watch a Raiders game 😉

      Mostly, we love teams with a good QB and a killer defense (like the Steelers, Colts, Cowboys, etc.)

      Take Care!