Being A Better Leader

So my team (which I am the captain of) is going to be entering its third year in FRC. I want to help my team be the best that it can be, but I’m not sure how to best go about that. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

Can you define what best means to you? That’s a good place to start the conversation.

Adding onto that, what does leadership mean to you? Have you thought about what your personal leadership style/philosophy is? Shoot me a PM. I’m in the process of building a program to help develop rookie teams, and we actually have some articles you’d be interested in :slight_smile:


Yeah that can definitely help.

Look to gain connections. Connections are KEY to help build your team, especially when it comes to bettering a team as a student.

I would recommend getting well versed in the FRC Discord and CD, and hitting up Bryce or myself whenever we roll out those articles mentioned above.

Want to make your team better? Have a goal in mind and take the necessary steps toward that goal. Reach out to others and dont be afraid to ask for help!

To expand upon Marshall’s question:

Do you want the “best” robot, “best” team culture, “best” team identity, “best” training…?

I am in a similar boat as OP.

Some of the things that I am doing are trying to research new ways of communication and documentation. These things, in my four years of FIRST experience (in both good seasons and bad), are vital to running/growing a team.

Communication provides a way of coordinating both robotics and team-building activities. It also makes it easy to get a message out.

Documentation is important because if/when your team decides to run for Chairman’s in a couple years, all the stuff you guys did will be there. Also, it is great for learning from your mistakes. If you have a poor season, then the people next year will thank you for showing them what NOT to do. This also works the other way: if you have a great season, then you know what to do.

This is all just my opinion, and I am not experienced in being the Captain of a team. Good Luck!

I see the thread title is “Being a better leader” so I assume you’re looking for things you can do specifically to improve both your team and your own leadership skills. Here’s a couple of things I learned in my time in FRC.

  1. Lead by serving. You don’t have to do everything-- that’s what the rest of the team is for. Instead of doing all of the work yourself, letting others participate will build their skillset, confidence, and give them an all around better experience. This doesn’t mean you can’t do anything, but rather, know that you always have a team to lean on to pick up anything that needs to be done.

  2. Always strive for improvement. There are a lot of cliches to be said here, but I’ll leave you with this: (aaaaand 4 years later they won Einstein).

  3. Remember that next year exists. Don’t just try to be great this year. Try to be great every year. Make sure you’re training the underclassmen so that all of the knowledge and experience you’ve accumulated throughout the past years doesn’t graduate with you.

Here’s a long, somewhat rambling summary of some talks I’ve been to and have given. This is an amalgamation of most of the information I’ve found useful that very few people have ever actually gotten around to telling me:

Every team and every project has a Wildly Important Goal (WIG). The WIG has many names- vision, mission, objective, prime directive, whatever - the point is, there is one thing which matters most to you and your team. Note: one thing. Not two, not three. One. While some teams do have multiple goals, my experience is that either those goals are all parts of the same big goal, or that some of those goals will never be met. At the end of the day, everything that isn’t part of the WIG is extraneous. You may not know what your team’s WIG is, but you might have some clues as to what it is in terms of what you already know is necessary.

The Wildly Important Goal will always be what some people call a “SMART” goal. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely. Rather than describe this in abstract, here’s an example you already know: FIRST, or For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.
That acronym seems pretty Specific to me - the objective is clear.

“But wait!” you might ask. “How can this be specific if it doesn’t even mention robotics teams?”
Here’s the thing - there’s a particular difference between a goal and a tactic. While the Wildly Important Goal for FIRST is inspiration and recognition, robotics teams are just a tool to bring that about. The reason for robotics teams is simply because notables such as Dean Kamen and Woodie Flowers believe that competition is an extremely effective way to get kids excited about science and technology. If they thought that Battlebots was a more effective way to inspire, I have no doubts that they’d switch to that tactic instead.

Meanwhile, every goal needs to be measurable. FIRST can measure their progress by how many teams they start, how many students enroll in STEAM, how many scholarships are awarded, and much more. The metric doesn’t always have to be numeric. If your WIG is something more nebulous, such as “Chase Excellence” or “Have Fun”, it’s naturally really hard to measure your progress there. However, you can at least compare and see how your tactics are working out to achieve your goal.

Next it Achievable. This is pretty straightforward- is it doable or not (and within the constraints?). Typically, this just requires common sense. However, you need to set your constraints so that it actually makes sense.

On to the final stretch - Realistic. At heart, this means it’s practical. As far as practicality goes, this is where you have to start thinking of your constraints. FIRST wants to spread STEM while remaining a non-profit organization, and additionally wants to do so at minimal cost to students and schools. It takes some work to make constraints that really make sense, but good constraints make for a good strategy (or in engineering, a good design).

Last one, I promise: Timely. This is the most neglected one. Timely is the final metric on whether you’ve succeeded - did you make the deadline or not? FIRST measures itself season by season, and also works more longitudinally - the goals are ultimately to change the workforce of the world in the next decade, or even 20 years.

The leader/manager/director/CEO of a team’s primary job is to implement the Wildly Important Goal. I think you and the team (or just the leadership sub-team of your team) needs to get together and think about what your Wildly Important Goal - you wanted the team to be the best it could be, but at what? When? How? From there, you can start to work your way down.

From there: delegate. Note that delegation doesn’t mean handing off your work and saying “See you in 2 weeks!” The real challenge of delegation is making sure that your subordinates have all the tools and knowledge necessary to carry out a task, and they also understand the task’s criteria and how it relates to the Wildly Important Goal.

A less- discussed job for a leader, especially a student leader, is establishing a culture. As a student (i.e. the peer of the other students), you need to lead by example as to how the team behaves. Culture covers a lot - everything from the level of mentor involvement to the dress code at competitions. Even if it feels like you can’t control the way students behave, those students DO notice how you behave and they will copy it.

Culture is a great chance to segue into leadership style. Many people here can remember bosses who were overbearing and anal about everything, and many others can remember bosses who didn’t support their team and didn’t care to train the team. In my experience, you kind of want a middle ground. The best way to lead and organize is to ask specific, helpful questions. A hypothetical scenario: During a design review, you could say “The arm won’t work like that, you need to replace the gears here and move it 2 inches to the left.” Independent of how right you may be, this makes the student designing this arm feel attacked and they will reply defensively. Instead, you could say, “What was your reason for putting the arm here? Do you think it could work better there?” As a leader, you need to be patient and trust the wisdom and expertise of your team members. That’s not to say your input isn’t valued, or that team members won’t need help - rather, instead of being bossy or aggressive about leading and teaching, you can treat learning and teaching as something more like a joint project where both you and your team members are building off of each others’ skills.

I apologize greatly if this makes no sense to anybody. If it makes no sense to anyone reading this, please ask and I’ll do by best to un-murk my prose. Odds are I’ve also forgotten some helpful nugget of wisdom here, so I might remember them later.

Kudos go to Ceal Craig, Laura Rhodes, and David Beaver for sharing much of this knowledge with me.

Thank you to all the great replies I’ve been getting so far, it really shows how great the First community is.

When I say I want to make my team better, I mean in the sense that I want us to be more effective at managing our time from the beginning of school to the build season and up to the competition itself. In the past, we’ve had problems getting ourselves organized and being able to work at a higher level. For example, our first year consisted of a lot of lazy days where we would do almost nothing and then go home. Although that robot was decent enough, we had problems with our wiring resulting in the robot disconnecting and us losing many matches. Our second year was even worse with our robot being almost completely a kit bot.

I guess what I’m really asking here is what do the best teams do and how do they utilize their time in a way that makes them able to work and compete at such a high standard, and how can I start introducing some of these practices into my team so that we can become better as a whole.

2338 Gear it Forward is hosting a leadership seminar/webinar (live on YouTube) on August 6-9. You might want to take a look at this thread:

This is a loaded question, and there is a lot to say here, but I’ll give you one main piece of advice - create documentation.

Document your team’s season in an engineering notebook. This will include everything from initial game analysis, all the way to your post-season analysis.

The reason the teams you’re thinking of do well is because knowledge is passed down year to year through student and mentor leadership using documentation. Documentation will train the next group of students about what to do and what not to do.

For example, you must have learned a lot from your wiring mistakes and must have said “this won’t happen ever again.” But, it will happen again unless your mentors keep that knowledge at hand in documentation and teach it prior to the build season.

This is just one example of one reason why the best are the best.

Here are a few examples of build journals:

This is a really important thread topic. I have a lot of respect for you for bringing it up.

Speaking from my own experience doesn’t have enough authority, I think, to get some important points across. Instead, I’m going to direct you to Randy Pausch, a CMU Computer Science professor whose “Last Lecture” (actually last lecture - he was dying of pancreatic cancer) is inspirational.

Here’s the video of it back in 2007:

I think that spending an hour and 16 minutes of your time to watch the Last Lecture can do a lot for your leadership, and also for you as a human being. Well worth the time.

FIRST is a great place to discover and grow leadership capabilities. There’s just so much to do, one person can’t lead it all. You need to grow a leadership team, which means anyone on the team has the opportunity to hold a leadership position at some point in their career with the team, not just the “select few” that are captains.

Historically, my team has done this through direct mentoring of the student leaders. We help them understand what needs to happen and how best to achieve their goals. While it’s certainly worked, this summer we’re making an effort to create some actual documentation around it. This will help us maintain consistency from year to year, and makes us less reliant on any one specific mentor for a given role.

Towards that end, we have a fairly generic Leadership Handbook, that is still a work in progress. We’re trying to use it to answer the question “How do I lead the team?”, rather than the question “What do I need to do?”. As such, I think a lot of what you’ll find in there can really apply to any team. Even if your leadership structure is different, most teams are doing the same sort of stuff.

To go along with that, each leadership position has a “Plan of Action” document. This document gets into the details to explain what needs to be done. For example, here is our Captain’s Plan of Action. These documents are also a work in progress, but the intention behind them is to ensure that we keep doing what we’ve had success with in the past. If something stops being valuable or applicable, we can easily remove it from the plan, but at least that’s a conscious choice, as opposed to losing it in the transition from one leader to the next, or not remembering about it until its too late.

The odds are pretty good your team runs differently from ours. Every team needs to find what works best for them, and there is no single “best” way to run a team. Seeking out how other teams operate is great, but make sure you keep that in mind as you do. Regardless, creating documentation as you go through the year and working towards giving your team a solid structure for the future are probably among the best things you can do. If you do that, you’ll help answer this same question for the next captain, just by handing them the documentation. If each successive captain expands on the documentation and keeps growing the plans, you’ll be amazed at how things can change in just a few years. Our docs linked above are, in a large part, an evolution of past documents and combinations of scattered documentation we’ve generated in the past. Our current effort is really just to bring it all together and provide more clarity and structure behind it.

In order to have the best robot you need to create the best team. To do so you need to make sure you get to know all the members of your team personally and try to figure out what their goals and interests are. This can be tough with bigger teams but vastly increases member retention and involvement. When I was captain I made a point to do this and our team grew from roughly 40 members with about 15 attending meetings regularly to about 60 members with 30-40 Regularly working on the robot or other projects. We did not just increase the size of the team but also the involvement which reflected in the quality and success of the robot.

I think it was Muhammad Ali or Mike Tyson who said “Everyone has a plan until they get hit in the face”. Be prepared for when you get hit in the face. When a major problem rises or there is an emergency you have everyone frantic and worried and they are all going to come to you looking for guidance. Everyone wants to know what’s going on and how they can help. You need to appear calm, calm everyone down, and organize the troops to push forward through the problem. This is extremely difficult because you could be worried or uncertain yourself but you need to be strong. It’s ok to ask for help to make sure you make the right decision. Communicate well and be direct in what you are looking for. If you are able to remain calm in tough situations, your team will look up to you for guidance and become stronger because they will begin to mimic your actions.

If you don’t have it yet -

Personally, I’d recommend making a good* mission and vision statement. Gather all the people who will be directing the team, get their input, put down something on electrons that everyone agrees to. It shouldn’t be a long, drawn out process. Post it in the team meeting space. Use it to set the tone for new people, and drive conversations based off of it. It can help you resolve conflicts, and set the foundation for folks to know why they are on the team.

As one of the most effective leaders I’ve ever known put it: “If you can’t describe in a few words why you’re here, then there’s not much point in being here.”

  • “Good” qualities usually involve concise, precise, accurate, encompassing just enough to fully describe your meaning and nothing more. The antithesis of how I usually write.

We do smart goals at work. As annoying as it can be to write up reports on them every year (mostly becasue we delay doing it till the last minute), it’s still the best framework I’ve seen for creating good goals.

I’d take it even a little further and say use S.M.A.R.T.E.R. goals.

Leadership is a tricky thing. What might work on one team may not work as well on another. The key in my opinion is to start with what is your mission and vision as a team. Have the whole team invest and believe in that mission and vision. Then establish a leadership structure and training that works with the team environment that you have.

Here is a link to our leadership page on our website. It details how to do leadership training with students as well as our leadership selection process, structure, and student opportunities.

Please let me know if you have any follow up questions.

Being a leader means putting time in where others won’t. Effective leaders know how to communicate with fellow students as well as mentors. As a leader you have to possess a great level of self control in order to keep the team focused. Often times corrective action is needed to keep the team on track however, the tone you use is very important. Students do not need to feel like they are being scolded, that is a quick way to lose respect. A great leader sets goals and holds their team accountable. The most important thing to do is set time aside to get to know your teammates. You have to be able to understand fellow team members. Respect is earned through trials and how you handle them. Good luck to you.

^This. Being a leader means doing some jobs nobody wants, doing what’s needed, and being an example. Attendance is important as a captain, you should have one of the highest if not the highest attendance.