Embracing the Challenges of Leadership in Biology

Today’s blog is written by guest blogger, John M. Collins, Executive Leadership Coach. Reposted from The ISHI Report with permission.



Like you, I’m excited about ISHI 2021 while still sad about the impact that COVID-19 had on ISHI 2020 and so many other forensic science conferences. These conferences are critically important to the continued development of forensic science professionals and the nurturing of the community cohesiveness that marks most respected occupations – including forensic science.


The boards of directors and executive leaders responsible for the planning and hosting of our many forensic professional conferences over the last year were likely confronted with some of the most challenging and exhausting leadership decisions they’ve ever experienced. I, for one, am grateful for their service and am reminded, as we all should be, that leadership often comes with challenges that are both complex and unpredictable.




This is one of the many principles that my colleagues and I will be presenting in our one-day leadership workshop titled, You Deserve a Cookie: Navigating the Challenging World of Leadership in Forensic Biology. As your facilitators, our goal is to elevate the awareness of our participants about the unique challenges of leading a forensic biology unit, while also presenting strategies and solutions for being more effective in a supervisory role.


Having practiced as a leadership instructor and executive coach for almost 8 years now, I’ve had the opportunity to coach laboratory directors, system directors, quality assurance managers, and unit supervisors in forensic science. But I can say without hesitation that the forensic biology supervisors and DNA technical leaders I’ve coached have taught me that the leadership challenges in forensic biology have elements of uniqueness and complexity that make them worthy of great respect.


One might argue, correctly so, that every forensic discipline is unique in its own way because the technologies, methods, and expertise are all unique. But there’s something about life in a forensic biology unit that sets it apart from not only the other forensic science disciplines, but also from other fields of professional endeavor both inside and outside of forensic science.


You might be surprised to hear that among the most challenging of leadership issues in forensic biology actually has nothing to do with science, work volumes, method validations, or difficulties with personnel. Instead, what I find to be a challenge of remarkable complexity and nuance is the hesitation of supervisors and technical leaders in forensic biology to fully commit to their leadership roles. This is easier said than done, of course. There is something almost addictive about the power that our scientific experience and expertise afford us. We worked hard for it. We were really good at what we did. We enjoyed making good use of it. And, not surprisingly, it became part of our individual sense of self-worth and identity. So to just give it all up for the enormous and seemingly thankless burdens of leadership is a big risk to take.


This hesitation, however, is costly because it impairs the leader’s ability to fully commit to the responsibilities of leadership with which he or she has been entrusted. And because he or she is keeping one foot in the casework sandbox while attempting to manage the affairs of the unit, the supervisory responsibilities aren’t met with the degree of commitment and energy needed to do it right. This adversely impacts the unit and its employees, and it makes leadership a much more frustrating experience than it should be. And, like a vicious feedback loop, this frustration causes the forensic biology leader to become even less committed to the leadership role.


The issues and challenges that we’ll explore in You Deserve a Cookie are not easy to manage on a daily basis. In fact, they can be quite exhausting at times. But leadership is an expertise of its own sort, one that comes with even more influence and power than what the forensic biology leader ever had as a casework scientist. Even though you might still feel a strong pull to work cases to the extent that it impedes your ability to fully commit to your leadership responsibilities, give yourself permission to fully embrace your leadership role. Trust me, it’s worth it. If working cases is not necessary for you and your laboratory, stop doing it. Instead, enjoy the rewards and satisfaction that come from completing cases through your people. That is, after all, what leadership is all about.


The burdens and challenges of forensic biology leadership don’t come with many tangible perks and incentives. The work is difficult, often frustrating, and the pressures are high. But my colleagues and I are going to teach you how to make it less difficult, less frustrating, and less pressure-packed. More important, we’re going to teach you how to engage more effectively with your entire team.


If you are a forensic biology leader, you do, in fact, deserve a cookie. You actually deserve a whole lot more, but the knowledge and perspective we’re going to give you in our workshop will be worth much more than that. The cookie we’re going to be sharing with you has a very sweet and enticing flavor that I like to call confidence.