Why Do Our Leaders Lead?

I am currently the Project Manager of the Olin Robotic Sailing team (ORS). However, in choosing my successor for next year, I had to ask myself: Why does anyone lead a large design team? What do the leaders get out of leading, and moreover, what do the participants get out of participating? I set out on a mission to interview leaders from the other project teams, REVO, HPV and Baja, to get a feel for their team cultures and their motivations behind leading these teams.

To start off, I discovered that almost 100 Oliners (nearly 1/3 of the school) are involved in large competition teams here at Olin. There are 25 students each on both Baja and ORS, 20 on HPV, and 30 on REVO. Additionally, all of the leaders cited single digit attrition rates for the period of time after the first two weeks of school, indicating that people are generally inclined to stay on a given large competition team once they’ve joined it.

After I understood the basic the structure of each organization, I delved into their cultures. Clearly the culture of a design team is fundamentally related with why people remain committed, and I was eager to discover what sorts of cultures the other teams had and how they differed from what I’m familiar with. In ORS, the culture is very much focused on the novelty of building a transatlantic vessel and working on an integrated robotics project. Many of us are or have become friends outside of the club, but we mainly come together just to work on the project. We’re not really a friend group, we don’t have parties, and we haven’t even ordered pizza this year, but we do have an interest in robotics, sailing, or both.

Nick Ostrom, the project manager of REVO, told me that he thinks people on his team “just come together because they enjoy… having something that’s their own to work on… [and] a sense of ownership over what they are doing.”

As a result of REVO’s tiny (3-4 people) sub-team size, each sub-team has its own small project to work on and each person has a significant role to play.

In Baja, on the other hand, project manager Tim Raymond told me, “Most people on Baja become pretty good friends outside [the club]” and “people get their friends involved.” He says that Baja has “frequent drive days” and they even have the semi-annual Baja party, which happens at the end of every semester. While sometimes they “just have to get things done,” for the most part, he says, “It’s just fun.”

Finally, Dan Kearney, the project manager of HPV, told me, “The group is pretty relaxed in general” and team members “trust each other.” He also told me that the team has the whole “hippie thing going on and hippies are never really that uptight,” so people generally enjoy working on the HPV team.

Finally, I asked each of the project managers what their motivation was behind leading their teams.

may2013_weeklyclubsTo me, I think that one of the biggest benefits of leading ORS has been getting to see the project from the top down and understand how many things have to be in place for a large design team to function properly. The leadership teams not only organize meetings and do long-term system integration, but they also have to interface with outside guests, monitor finances, fundraise, coordinate testing (which for ORS in particular is a non-trivial task), and maintain relations with the college. As the project manager of ORS, I’ve learned a lot about how Olin finances work and how to coordinate a large number of things at once. I’ve also gotten to see the system come together in a unique way, because I’m familiar with all of the subsystems involved.

When asked about his motivation, Raymond said that he loves “teaching people or bringing people up-to-speed” on the project. He also really likes to “see the overall direction of the team,” and he views Baja as a “good opportunity to make a positive impact on the school.” For him it’s about getting people excited about the project and teaching them skills that they may not have otherwise acquired. He even told me that he’s “learned more doing four years of Baja than all four years of [his] classes, by far.”

Kearney similarly enjoyed mentoring people, but said that his “favorite thing about being lead is having a very clear vision of what’s going on” with the team and “understanding the team very well.” As the project manager, he knows who is doing what, and is aware of the overall status of the whole project at any given time.

Ostrom, on the other hand, said that the bottom line for him was that he wants “to see more and more people get involved with the [electric vehicle] industry” and he thinks that the team is “beneficial to [team members] and to a global perspective.” His primary motivation behind leading this new team is to share the knowledge he’s gained working with electric vehicles.

Through the interviews I had with Raymond, Kearney, and Ostrom, I learned a lot about what it takes to maintain a large project team as well as what it takes to lead one. All were excited by their roles, and all of them would definitely do it all over again if they had the option. Each of these organizations has its own core group of people and its own culture, but when it comes down to it, the same things motivate us to lead large project teams: a sense of vision and a passion for teaching others.


Baja (rewarding, chaotic, impactful)
one general meeting and one meeting per sub-team per week

HPV (bikes, bikes, bikes)
one design meeting and one work time/machining meeting for whole team per week

REVO (educational, cooperative, facilitating)
one general meeting and one meeting per sub-team per week

ORS (unusual, ambitious, exciting)
one general meeting