A Leadership Perspective: From Bench Criminalist to Lab Director

Brian Hoey, the Lab Director at the Missouri State Highway Patrol, recently presented at one of our Tech Tours held in Seattle. In his talk, he shared insights from his lengthy career in forensics. He is a twenty-eight-year veteran of the Missouri State Highway Patrol Crime Laboratory. Brian worked much of his career as a DNA analyst and served as the DNA technical Leader for 8 years. Brian is currently the Director of the laboratory system.


He holds a Bachelors and Masters degree in Biology from Northern Illinois University. as well as an MBA from William Woods University.


Brian served as a Member of the Scientific Working Group on DNA Analysis Methods (SWGDAM) for 8 years as well as served on it’s on the Executive Board for 3 years. Brian is a Member of the Midwestern Association of Forensic Scientists (MAFS) where he served on the Board of Directors as the Treasurer for three years (2008-2011) and President (2013). Brian was awarded MAFS Outstanding Scientist in 2016. Brian is a certified facilitator for Police Leadership: The West Point Model. Brian is also a member of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) and The American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors (ASCLD).



How would you sum up your leadership path?

I have had a very fulfilling career. Leadership was not something I sought. To be honest, I had some bad leaders, and that motivated me to think I could do better. However, leadership for me happened rather organically and with a lot of luck. I truly was in the right place at the right time, but success is a perfectly timed collision between luck and skill. I suppose I was at least skillful enough to be in a particular position when luck happened. I was also fortunate enough to have good mentors who chose to work with me and show me that even as an informal leader, people were following me.

In your presentation at the Promega Technology Tour earlier this year, you talked about how your leadership approach has changed dramatically from the early days…What was your leadership style then? How would you describe your leadership style now?

My father was a football coach, I was really into sports and the early part of my life was largely influenced by sports coaches; consequently, my original leadership style was very “Mike Ditka” oriented. I don’t recall screaming and yelling, but I was mercurial and tried to bend situations to my will. I screwed up a lot of humans. Today, I’ve learned that leadership is not about me, it’s about the needs of the people I lead and aligning those needs with the purpose and mission of my organization.


What’s the biggest mistake leaders often make?

I think it may be hubris that if we are successful in our career then we are certain to be a successful leader. We frequently see very successful athletes become terrible coaches, or successful business women and men be bad leaders. And in our profession, we frequently see good bench scientists be challenged as leaders.


You’ve had a lengthy career in forensics, did you feel prepared to take over as Lab Director? If not, how did you get up to speed?

I thought I was prepared for it with the same hubris as mentioned above. I was fortunate however – for lack of a better word- that I failed early in my formal leadership career (although my followers probably didn’t feel so fortunate). My failure caused me to learn. I sought to achieve a similar, if not the same, formal training as I did to become a successful Forensic Biologist; I took a bunch of classes, trainings, etc. and even sat for my MBA.


What was the most unexpected challenge you faced when you became Lab Director? How did you handle it?

As with most promotions I’ve received, the unexpected challenge was exactly that, …the unexpected. The grass is always greener… Things like the legislative schedule, political pressure and financial cycles were new challenges. I handled them like I’ve done so many times in my career, I learned, failed and learned again. And I’m still learning and practicing. One very important lesson I learned when learning how to handle it is that I can’t do it all, nor know it all; I’ve got great people that help and take on much of the heavy lifting. My administrative staff is great at helping me see the outside view, things that I don’t see through my own, often self-important lens. I, like many others, frequently put myself in a box and fail to see the outside view. Being surrounded by loyal “no-sirs” is very helpful; being willing to listen and rethink is a must.


In your opinion, what qualities make a good leader? Can these be learned? Or are they something you’re just born with?

Competence, character, compassion. and commitment. Nature vs. nurture is an age-old debate when it comes to these discussions. I believe it is both. Michael Jordan was certainly born talented, but was also cut from his high school varsity team (although that story is a bit nuanced). The point is that Jordan practiced, was relentless about it and the rest is history. Like anything else we do, leadership qualities can be learned, but it takes practice. I am still practicing.


How do you think management/leadership today can best support their teams, especially in times of crisis, like the COVID pandemic?

You can never over communicate, and you must empathically listen. Communication and listening begin with mutual respect, mutual purpose, and making the communication safe to have. We all know that COVID created fear and uncertainty, particularly early on. Some felt like it was nothing, while others felt completely unsafe in the workplace. As leaders, we need to respect both opinions and make the environment safe so our followers can express their feelings and opinions to us. We need to listen to our followers and make them feel felt. We also need to communicate the mutual purpose we all share with the organization’s purpose and mission; people need to know the why. That mantra should be the same and consistent whether it is giving someone a performance appraisal, dealing with a crisis or even a once in a lifetime global pandemic.


What advice do you have for new leaders who are feeling unprepared for their new roles?

Learn and practice. Know that you don’t know it all, and never will. Put as much effort into learning leadership as you did to learn molecular biology and mixture interpretation. Be the Scientist that you are- hypothesize, test it, and be willing to be flexible when you are wrong. Then analyze where you went wrong and learn from it. Most importantly, as you would with a case, be radically transparent.


What’s the most rewarding thing about leading your team?

Organizations are collections of people. Successful leaders meet the needs of people while furthering the purpose and mission of the organization. If leaders can do that, you give people the tools to succeed, and it is like capturing lightening in a bottle. It is rewarding when your followers and organizations succeed. If I had even the slightest hand in leading someone to success, it is very rewarding. Leadership is a gift.