Student Leadership Elections in the Fall


I am part of the student leadership for my FRC team and wanted to see what Chief Delphi thought of some things going on in our club right now. We have always been proud to call ourselves very student-led and run, and historically our team has had student leadership making most the calls and students making every bit of the robot from design to build to the software. However, due to some recent success in the last few years, the teacher advisors of the club have started to take on a more commanding role. To be completely honest, I believe this is good because the team hasn’t always had the best leadership in previous years. However, the latest change that the advisors have basically forced upon the club without the approval of the student leadership seems (to me) to be unwise. I wanted to see what Chief Delphi might think about it.

Background: The team operates as a club towards our high school. This means that we are technically supposed to accept everyone who applies. However, every year before this year we had an application process that ended up cutting many people that would have been very helpful to the team. Although we accepted everyone this year, some inequality still occurred and we had a core group of around 15-20 students doing most of the robot. This elitist exclusivity (the way the advisors say it) has ticked off our advisors and they wanted to change things. To do this, they changed our student leadership elections to be in the Fall (when the next school year starts) rather than in the Spring (right now) when we have always done them. They plan on hosting a leadership training session during the summer where students from the team can learn what it would mean to have a leadership role on the team, and then they can choose whether they still want to run in the fall.

In my opinion, I think this isn’t the best time and place for elections for two reasons.

  1. In the Spring, you have experienced Seniors who have been on this team for four years and know who might be the right choice for the position. However, those Seniors are gone in the Fall and in their place come rookies who will have to vote for leaders that they met hours ago. I think that places a lot of responsibility on new members who have virtually no idea who to vote for, and misses out on the years of expertise that these students have.
  2. For about four months, our club will essentially have no leadership and will not be able to run. I believe that missing four crucial months of offseason time when we could be doing outreach events, building more robots, and training new members when instead we will be sitting around doing almost nothing.

We proposed a different idea to the advisors but they shot it down immediately. The student leadership proposed to have leaders elected, continue to have leadership training (which I believe will be very beneficial) in the summer, and then have those leaders reevaluate whether they want to continue being leaders in the Fall. This would both train better leaders and allow for the club to continue growing and improving over the next four months.

From the students and mentors (who are all experienced industry professionals and leaders themselves) who I have talked to, they all agree that having elections in the Fall would be a bad idea. What do you guys think? If the general consensus is that Spring elections are better, do you have any tips as to how we (our student leadership) could work to change this?*

Thank you

*Note about changing the situation: The advisors have threatened that if we try to undermine their authority, they might leave the club. Unfortunately, despite my vast unhappiness with the way they have handled the club, they are by far the best teachers at our school to mentor this club, and without them, the club would likely shut down.


You could always do 6 month terms - May -> November -> May. That lets you use the offseason to grow leadership, and new members will have had a couple of months to get to know the team before picking the build season leadership.

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We do elections in the spring for the mostly same reasons you gave: Seniors have valuable knowledge and we want their input, and it helps to have leadership set before you intake your new batch of first-years.

That said a few thoughts:

Ideally everyone in FRC is a leader to some degree, even if it’s just to the degree of helping out your teammates every once and a while in an area you have some expertise. Getting as many people into that leadership camp as possible would be awesome.

It may be that my team is much smaller than yours but going into the election we pretty much know who our leaders are going to be: they’re the ones who have been leading the past year. A leader whose only authority is their title is no leader. Good leaders need no title to lead and are recognized before they are officiated. The election is more a formality and resume fluffer for us.

Have the leadership addressed how you’re going to fix the perceived inequality? Because it sounds like that’s your root issue, if you come up with a good plan of action towards solving it then your status raises in the eyes of your advisers. With more status you have more autonomy to run things how you want them to be ran. I’d start with a discussion on how to fix the problems your advisers see.

At some point your boss is your boss. While the team structure may be more centered around the students for the design process, to the school the club is run by your advisers: they are the ones in charge and simply choosing not to exercise their power. If they make an ultimatum it’s probably not worth breaking it or toeing that line. I’d have a gracious and professional conversation with your advisers, but make the best of whatever decision they make. Lose the battle to win the war. Know when to back off.

It’s tricky–I’ve been on teams where the student leadership was named in the fall, and others where the student leadership was named in the spring. Ultimately I think both work as long as the student leaders are committed to their roles (when it happens matters less) and they’ve got the active team supporting them.

Two cents–I’ve seen greater team cohesiveness when the team operation is less like a hierarchy and more like a Scrum Team (or multiple scrum teams within a scrum team if you are dealing with a lot of people).

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If the advisers are dug into their position, trying to force it to change isn’t going to work too well. Instead, look for a compromise:

Have elections in the fall like they want, fine. But have some “interim” leaders until then as well. So long as you get decent, hardworking and dedicated people into those interim roles, it doesn’t matter how they are selected - vote, appointment, whatever. That will let your team continue to operate over the summer and make progress on your goals.

For what its worth, when it comes to FRC teams, I don’t think elections are the best way to select leaders. You run the risk of selecting the most “popular” student for a position, instead of the most capable, or having the team vote in a senior just because they are a senior, instead of someone younger.

For that reason, on our team the mentors make the decision on our student leaders. We invite input from the students for the co-captain positions (a non-binding online poll), but base the decision on our observations over the previous seasons, an application they fill out, and an in-person interview. For all other leadership roles, students apply (aka indicate interest in an online poll) and the decisions are made based on a conversation between the new captains and the mentors.

If your problem is perceived inequality, changing how you select your leaders and organize your team could significantly help with that. While my team only has 2 co-captains, we had 9 (I think?) other official leadership positions this past year, with some of them having practically as much responsibility as the co-captains, just more focused on specific aspects of the team. It’s possible for anyone on the team to get a leadership position, if they take the time to read our leadership handbook (20 pages long) and put some effort towards the position they want in the previous year.

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I agree, and we pick the student leaders rather than a team vote. They must apply for the role. And there is a varying level of student involvement. Definitely try to listen to their inputs, but they haven’t typically had a direct voting role. Times I’ve been involved the roles have typically sorted themselves out without a need for formal voting, usual we have a mentors meeting and discuss which student applied and which would be best at it in our opinion.

I agree with OP that there is not much reason to wait until Fall to do this. It is nice to have things set in place for our summer activities. And I like to have the leadership hand-off before Seniors leave for college. It is a good time for that to be happening now. Also, we don’t consider any freshmen (and first year members) for any leadership positions, so they are not needed for this decision.

For now, compromise seems best. Also, keep track of what all the ‘interim’ leaders do, then you can use it next time to show the adults the benefits to having people in place through summer, and maybe they will approve a Spring transition then.

The team I am mentoring this year did not hold elections until September due to some major changes in the team. In the past, the team leadership was chosen at the end of the school year. Because of the late start, many activities (training, fundraising, practice builds) did not really get off the ground properly. Elections for the 2020 season are going on now. Do the teachers know what the consequences are if the elections are delayed?

If the interim leaders are the only choice you are left with, be sure to ensure that all actions involve at least two people and are well documented since you may have to work through two transitions in a year for some of the leadership positions.

You could do temporary roles in the spring

After recruiting you could then review those roles and see if there is better options

what is stopping people from being a “leader” in the off season? do you need the title to schedule meetings, demos, etc? While seniors have a lot of experience, I would think that any leader should be fairly obvious even to someone who just joined the team. You don’t need a title to lead people, or you can hold an election now that is not official and those people will pretend to be the leadership.

Edit: I didn’t phrase it right, by no means should you make a secret society behind your mentors back that will only lead to disaster, have a non official as in not permanent and doesn’t change anything.goi g behind people’s backs is the best way to ruin a team and generate toxicity.

Honestly, this is how a lot of successful teams operate (and not just in FRC).

I’ve found that trying to go against this principle is usually in vain. I think that successful team structures empower the 20% to perform to the best of the ability while providing a robust training structure for the remaining 80% to either serve in support roles or learn so they’re prepared when they have to step up to be the 20%.


We are student lead but not student controlled. In that sense, we don’t do elections the mentors appoint the student leaders on our team. Although, I think we’re leaning towards a student nomination/mentor elected model next season but we’ll see what happens there.

But, the important part is I don’t think your situation is the end of the world. We’ve had situations in the past where a kid would get put into leadership super early and his mother got diagnosed with cancer. So, he didn’t even put in enough time to even be an active team member let alone leader. But, we got put in a hole because of that life situation so we didn’t want to kick him while he was down (he felt he was the leader the whole time). This season, we didn’t name official leadership positions until the night before kick off during our alumni and family party which is way too extreme as well.

If I were you and your teammates I’d operate business as usual. For my fellow mentors on my team we want to see kids step up and be leaders. For instance, the kid who became our shop lead was the kid who got on people for leaving a mess, being unorganized, asking us questions about proper machine setup, etc… He wasn’t named the lead until December but he kind of fell into that role by September/October. So, I wouldn’t let the lack of an election or official leaders being in place this summer slow you down. Respond by keeping up with doing good work and working well with your teammates. At the end of the day, I’m sympathetic to the 15-20 “elitist” situation you’re dealing with (I get accused of supporting that as well) but it’s very easy to point out the kids who want to put in the effort and time, those who don’t and those whoa are caught in the middle.

I’ll address your two concerns, because I think they may not be as devastating as you think if handled well:

  1. Sure, the seniors have observed who would make a good leader. So has everyone else on the team. I would argue that the freshmen and sophomores who’ve worked with a prospective leader have just as much insight - they’re the ones who’ve actually experienced being led by that person. It may not make sense to have new members vote, since they don’t know everyone very well.
  2. You shouldn’t be sitting around doing nothing all summer just because you have no elected leaders. If I was your mentor and the team sat around doing nothing for four months because no one was willing to step up and organize projects, demos, etc unless they have an official title, I would argue that none of you are ready to be leaders and your team isn’t equipped to be completely student-run next year. If anything, the unstructured summer should be a golden opportunity for anyone who wants to become a leader to show what they’re capable of.

I admire FRC team 4 ELEMENT’s approach to this problem. Their handbook (pdf link).

Students who are interested will apply for an open position, submit a portfolio,
and will be given an interview by mentor leadership.

Once leads are chosen they will be placed on a probationary status and must fulfil certain requirements in order to keep their position. These requirements are:

  1. Organize a fundraising event or acquire a sponsor for a minimum of $500 (cash or in-kind.)
  2. Take a college-level course in the field they are interested in.
  3. Create and maintain a working relationship with another FRC team.
  4. Maintain a training program for all team members in their respective department and contribute a new article to The Leaf periodically
  5. Devote extra hours in the off-season to help the team.
  6. Meet the minimum hours during the pre-season and build season per Team Contract requirements. Attend all mandatory meetings (barring emergencies.)
  7. Document all accomplishments and organize in a portfolio. Include a brief description and summary of each item.
  8. Acquire new mentors

Positions will become official on Kickoff Day for each season.

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I don’t really know how they do summers, but they should work with the mentors to get to the same page. Maybe the mentors want to assign different students to different summer activities and use that as leadership tryouts. Having pretend leaders that are not officially elected could be a problem. It sounds like secret meetings (to decide) and ingroups (who know the unofficial leadership team), which I’d avoid both. And what happens in the Fall if the mentoring team decides that other people than those unofficially elected should be in charge. I think it could be harmful to team unity.

While you may have students fill the void, it may not always be the best leader. Mostly it is the most vocal. Or maybe the most popular. While these traits aren’t bad, they aren’t a fully baked leader either. In FIRST, most students elevated to leadership roles have not ever had serious leadership experience. I think of almost all the students we put in the roles as Leaders-In-Training. For me, it lessens the frustrations of their mistakes, turning them into learning opportunities. I definitely keep in mind that we are training leaders when reading applications, which can sometimes lead to non-traditional leaders to be picked. Though I agree lots of time you already know who will be vying for spots and would be a good pick by this time of the season.

This is something important for teams to consider - life happens. One year, one of our co-captains basically had to take the year off. I won’t go into the details, but everyone was happy when she could come back for her senior year… but it did leave us in a hole that we had to unexpectedly fill in the fall.

It is best if teams could set themselves up so no one individual is crucial to the survival of the team or the team having a good season. At our end of season debrief, one of the mentors pointed out that two of the team leadership team did most of the heavy lifting including stepping in and filling roles such as doing all of the CAD work and it would have been a lot better for the team, as a whole, if some of that work was done by other team members. When either one of them was not there, progress slowed dramatically.

My team does elections at the start of the school at a meeting with just the people from the last year. This way everyone voting knows the people running. I agree that the seniors may have good insight into who would make a good captain, but I don’t know if it it’s fair to give them influence over who is leading after they leave

This is hard to manage sometimes, because they will keep in contact. My main concern is that the next leaders are able to make their own calls, and not being pushed into decisions by former leaders. They usually already have enough stress on their plate. Go to alums for advice, but make decisions with the current team.

Somewhat related, I had an interesting idea (haven’t tried it) where at the end of the year the Seniors who letter on our team could all give us a single request for something we would do next season, that they think would improve the team. And we would be bound to do it, except that there would be a buyout of $100, for example. So if we decided not to follow the request, we would have to (likely among the mentors) come up with some cash. Of course, it is possible they would make impossible requests, but I’d like to think they would be more serious about things they think would improve the team. It would let them exert some influence on the next years team, but at the same time the team could choose to not do it.

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