The New Superior: Leadership in a Forensic Laboratory – ISHI News

May 04 2023

The New Superior: Leadership in a Forensic Laboratory


Now retired from his forensic science career, John M. Collins works in private practice as an executive leadership coach specializing in people, teams, and organizations in positions of public trust – individuals and teams whose decisions have a direct impact on the quality and duration of people’s lives. In these environments, there is a high sensitivity to changing styles of leadership.


In this interview, John explains that the more toxic approaches to influencing people come naturally to us, while the more thoughtful and engaging ones don’t. He shares mistakes that he often sees leaders make, explains his style of coaching, and provides advice for both those currently in a leadership role and those who are considering this career path.


For more information, read John’s recently released book and consider attending one of his workshops at ISHI this fall.





Laura: Thank you for tuning into our annual video series from the International Symposium on Human Identification. Today, we’re here with John Collins. John, you presented a workshop this year. I’m very excited to hear about that. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about your background and what brought you here?


John: Yeah, thank you, first of all, for having me. It was a great workshop. It was a leadership development workshop and was actually named after something that’s really important to me, which was a book that I recently released. But, my background in forensics is actually in firearms. So, my expertise was in ballistics. I used to match up the bullets to the guns and a lot of shooting cases. That was my training, and I did that for a number of years. I was one of the investigators in the bombing of the ’96 Olympics, which was really interesting. It had a great impact on me and I learned a lot about leadership and so forth. I got into laboratory management at a really early age; much earlier than most people would and I wasn’t really expecting it. I was 30 years old and I was in charge of a team of about 15 scientists and support staff, and really was not very good at it and had to get good at it as quick as I could. So, I had a really great career and I love forensic science and working with people within forensic science and I love to come to conferences like this to kind of stay connected with what’s going on in the community.


Laura: Well, you talked about moving into leadership at such a young age, which is challenging at any age. There’s a big difference between doing the work in the field and then leading the team and then all that comes with it. So did all that translate into you becoming the coach for leadership, particularly in this field?


John: Yeah, it’s a good question. There’s two ways you can learn about leadership. You can learn about it from people who are really good at it and teach you what they know and teach you how to be a good influencer and a team or you can learn it from people who are horrible at it and you realize the ways that you don’t want to do it. That’s how I learned. I, for lack of a better way of describing it, was really subjected to some horrific managerial styles and approaches that borderlined on abusive and I thought, “I’m not sure that I want to be in this field.” But that’s when I took an interest in management and started giving talks and presentations about leadership and forensic science and what it should look like and asking difficult questions like how should we be leading our forensic laboratories and our units, and it really exploded from there and I ended up retiring my career after 20 years so that I could start my coaching and leadership development practice which is what I’ve been doing for about 10 years. So, it grew out of knowing what I didn’t want to be as a leader and really helping people who are in positions of influence and leaders to be more effective at it.


Laura: That’s such an interesting transition. I think all of us have experienced leaders that were both good and bad and have our own feelings about that, but you particularly had some experiences that really made you want to change things in the field. Are there any examples or things that you want to share that made you think that, “I have to change this?”


John: The one thing in particular, and I appreciate that question for a very specific reason, is we have to keep something in mind that’s really important to the context of leadership in forensic science specifically, is that the vast majority of people that are in forensic science work in law enforcement agencies. What I have discovered and what many other people have discovered in this field is that this juxtaposition of science with law enforcement which is a paramilitary style of culture does not always go so well and can be very difficult for people that work in the field. So, the answer to your question is that what I’ve really tried to change and, in my own way, have tried to advocate for there to be much more effective and people-centered approaches to leading people in forensic science so that they can function as a team. Unfortunately, law enforcement is very hierarchical and what we know from research is that hierarchical behaviors suppress teamwork, so that’s really at the heart of what I’ve been trying to do is to help people be more effective people-centered leaders and hopefully also have an influence over the sworn law enforcement commanders that are overseeing our laboratories.


Laura: Let’s talk about what you’ve developed over these 10 years. I believe the title of your workshop was The New Superior, which was also the title of your book. So let’s talk about what that means.


John: Yeah, The New Superior was sort of a vision that I had that developed over many years, but basically, what’s at the heart of that concept is the new superior is the leader who inspires people and enables people to (to use a phrase that’s used a lot) to be better versions of themselves and who facilitates and nurtures teamwork. Whereas the old superior, which I talk a lot about in my book, is an approach that is a lot more entitled. In other words, I have more rank than you. I am superior to you, and therefore I’m entitled to some perks and levels of courtesy that you’re not entitled to, and it’s a very broken way of thinking about management, but the problem is that it’s endemic in our workforce today and it’s endemic in law enforcement and it’s a problem that really bears heavily on the profession of forensic science. So, it’s my way of sort of creating a distinction between these two approaches and first of all to help people understand what this old style of superiority is and why it doesn’t work and what this new way of being a superior really means now in the 21st century where we have workforces and teams that are much more capable and skilled and knowledgeable than they were 100 years ago or whatever it may be. So, it was really a labor of love. It was a very difficult project and I tell a lot of stories from my forensic career and what I learned from those experiences.


Laura: Writing a book is never easy. I’ve ghost-written a number of them and it’s just a project. I very much appreciate anyone who has gone through that and come out the other side. You’re in a good place now. So, you did talk about how a leader in the forensic field differs sometimes from a leader in another field and maybe some of that is the hierarchy that you were talking about, but I’m sure there are other elements. What are some special considerations that you shared in your workshop, for example?


John: First of all, of the things that we really try to emphasize, or that I try to emphasize not only in my book, but in the workshops that I do, is that it’s fascinating that the research shows that only about 10% of us has what’s described as a high-capacity for leadership and that’s kind of alarming when you think about it, and people might be surprised by that, but it is, in fact, the truth. So, what that means is that leadership does not come naturally to most of us. What does come naturally to us, because we are a species of animals on this planet is hierarchy, and that’s what people tend to resort to when they don’t really have a high level of leadership competency. So, what we try to get people to focus on is to develop processes for them so they can systematize their approach to leadership and let’s not rely on our personalities to feel our way through it. Let’s have really good systems and processes to follow to make sure that we’re hitting the marks that we need to hit and that we be specific about the results that we’re trying to produce. So, just one example of that is I’m a big proponent of employee engagement surveys and employees having the opportunity to rate their supervisors. I think it’s absolutely critical, but it doesn’t happen in a lot of organizations, and it doesn’t happen often in law enforcement, and I think it needs to happen. And if it did happen, I think we’d have some wide open eyes about what happens in a lot of organizations, but by the same token, we’d be able to identify some really effective leaders in our field and we could learn from what they’re doing to keep their teams engaged. So, process over personality is a real common theme in what I write about and what I talk about.


Laura: So when you were operating a workshop, how did you approach it? Is it hard to put everything you’ve learned into one day? What did that look like? What kind of questions did you get?


John: So, what I talked about specifically was the results of an assessment that I gave to the workshop attendees before they came. So, as a coach, I administer an assessment that’s called the Clifton Strengths Assessment. What that is is an assessment that a lot of attendees take and I give to a lot of my coaching clients that measures their top talent themes (as they’re called) that research has shown are common to life success and career success. So, what we want to do is help people understand who they are, how they’re uniquely wired, and we want them to utilize those skills. So, as an example, if I have one workshop attendee whose top Clifton strength is achiever, that’s an individual that I really want to focus on goal setting and be real specific about the results they want to produce, and what is it that they want to get done? On the other hand, if we have an attendee, which we did, that has harmony as their number one strength, which is a relationship building strength, I want that individual to focus on interactions with their people and interactions with their clients and getting people on a common page and creating consensus. So, that becomes part of the process, and we want people to become aware of what their natural strengths are and natural abilities are and leverage those and don’t try to be someone that you’re not. We want you to be best at what you’re good at and then cultivate the contributions of your team where you have gaps in those talents.


Laura: I love that you do an assessment first that really goes into more depth. There are certainly a million out there and I’m sure we could name 10 of them off the top of our heads, but I love that you something that really digs deeper and helps to understand the attendee and what they need. What really fascinates me is that once you know that, how do you help to cultivate the team members to fill in the gaps that they have? What I think you’re saying, and please correct me if I’m wrong, is that anyone can be a leader, but you need to understand yourself and what you’re good at, and then you need to fill in the gaps to make sure things work.


John: Right, so that’s a great question and the answer that I think we really emphasized in the workshop yesterday is that we have a disadvantage in some regards being in the kind of field that we’re in in forensic science, because we have such a large number of cases coming into our laboratories and we have so much evidence that is flowing in and we only have so many people to work those cases. What happens is that people get into what’s called an ‘executing mode’ where they’re focused on the tasks at hand and getting the work done and so forth and what happens is that it tends to draw from the reserves of time and energy that we might otherwise put towards our relationships in the workplace. So, for managers, this becomes a particular problem, because what people will do when they start to get overwhelmed is they will start to withdraw from their relationships. They become overwhelmed by the work, and they take less interest in their people, and they become less curious about their people, so you’re less likely to hear a question like, “how was your daughter’s volleyball game last night” or something like that where people are taking a genuine interest in each other. But, you need that mutual interest in order to function as a team. So, one of the themes we really emphasized is saying look, nothing is going to change here anytime soon with forensic science with people being busy and having a lot of work to do, so you have make it part of your process and your approach to being a professional and your approach to being a leader to take an interest in your team members and as a leader to take a genuine interest in your people. Because what you’re doing is you’re communicating to people that they matter and when people feel like they matter and they feel like they’re important, it’s amazing the level of commitment you’ll get out of them and you’ll have a much better team.


Laura: I think that’s a fantastic piece of advice. Now, what would you say to someone who is on a leadership path or would like to be on a leadership path, but isn’t there yet. What kinds of things should they start doing ahead of time to prepare?


John: The answer to that question for me is really really clear. Build your self-awareness. The first thing, and it’s one of the reasons that I wrote the New Superior, is that people who are contemplating leadership absolutely need to do is take stock or inventory of some of their existing notions about what leadership is and about their own personality style and when they become a leader, what is most likely going to become some of their blind spots and some of their temptations that they’ll be vulnerable to and the sticking points that might get them stuck in certain habitual ways of thinking. So, we want to confront those notions of leadership that can come from our parents or our teachers when we’re children, other adults in our life, because you’ve got to work through those so that you can understand yourself and have a level of self-awareness so that you can regulate yourself once you get into that leadership position, because if you don’t have that ability to self-regulate, because you don’t have that level of self-awareness that you need, what’s going to happen is you’re going to cause damage to your relationships with people and then those people won’t be able to perform in a way that you want them to as their leader and the way that they want to as professionals.


Laura: You always hear from people that it’s leaders and not jobs that push them out.


John: Oh yeah, they quit because of their bosses.


Laura: Absolutely, absolutely. What about people who are already leaders and it’s easy to get stuck in your ways or the blind spots that you’ve talked about. What advice would you give them or is it difficult, because they don’t see it and they don’t know that they need assistance? How do you reach somebody like that?


John: Yeah, it’s interesting. I choose to be an optimist on this point in that you can reach everybody on some level. Now the degree that you can make a difference is a different story. But, people that are in leadership positions now, I would encourage them to start very basic, and that is to do some kind of employee engagement survey or some type of survey where employees get to evaluate their supervisors. It’s very important, and if a supervisor is uncomfortable with that, that’s your first sign that there’s a problem, because someone that’s very secure in their management style and has the right attitudes about their leadership and their responsibilities to their team, they’re going to invite or welcome the opportunity to gather that information. Now, it needs to be done in such a way that employees know there’s some anonymity and there’s some integrity to the process, but managers need to know how their people feel about them and that has to matter to those managers, so that’s the first step is to have some sort of let’s say annual system of gauging the commitment of the employees and letting them comment so that you can learn from them. No one knows your management style better than your people do, so you want to extract that information. The second point really quick is that even if you do some sort of survey, but if you choose not to, have the kind of relationship with your people where you can talk to them and say, “hey look, is there anything I could be doing better to help you in your job?” Just be real with them and be present with them and stop thinking, if this is applicable, of yourself as a superior. That’s not what leadership is about. Leadership, what I submit, is being an equal in the moment. You have rank. You have a certain amount of authority, that’s important, but be present with your present with your people and work side by side with them, because that’s how you’re going to develop their commitment and their enthusiasm.


Laura: And ultimately, I would assume, that makes their job easier as well. So, now how do you deal with a company culture where someone perhaps wants to do an engagement survey, but they’re afraid of what they might get back and there might be some pushback from their leadership? I assume you have to look at the whole culture in some cases?


John: Yeah, you do, and that becomes a different kind of a problem, right, because we have the classic problem that we have in forensic science called the parent organization. Your leadership has limits to the amount of influence you can have because of what’s going on above your head in the chain of command, so you’re limited in terms of the influence you can have with the people above you in the chain of command, and we have to just recognize that that’s the case. But what we want to do is to help people to stay connected to why it is they do what they do, and why it is that forensic science, like we’re talking about in this case, is important. But with any organization, so if I was running an accounting firm, I would want my accountants to be regularly reminded of why their work is so important and there is a lot of creative ways to do that, but you want to connect people with their sense of purpose, because that allows them to weather greater storms in the sense that there are some other cultural or managerial problems that they’re coping with.


Laura: That is great advice. The mission or the why. Without that, how do you motivate anybody. That’s an excellent point. How about any specific examples from the forensic scientists that took your workshop. Were there any surprising questions, questions that you hear all the time? Any tips that you can give our audience which is widely forensic professionals. Since they weren’t able to attend the workshop, what would you tell them until they can come to another one?


John: Yeah, first and foremost, one of things that we talked about in our workshop and that I would tell anybody is make sure you remind yourself regularly of how many people wish they were in this field, and the good that you get to do on a regular basis regardless of what kind of organization and culture you’re in and so forth. The hard thing for me, and I think for anybody who does what I do, is when you talk with workshop attendees who will sidebar with you and what they will tell you is that they are at their wit’s end, because they are reporting to a manager that is just not competent, at least not by today’s standards. So, what happens is when you have incompetent managers or managers who can’t relate to their people, that what they tend to do is resort to their hierarchy and engage in a hierarchical behaviors that just drain the enthusiasm out of their employees, so when they have the chance to talk to someone like me who’s a coach who specializes in this stuff, I hear these stories. But what I would tell anybody is you have to keep heart. You have to keep focus every day. I encourage people like we did in the workshop, one of the greatest tips you can give everybody is to plan every week before it begins. In other words, set goals every week that will make that week a success for you, because if you can make that week a success, it will allow you to sort of emotionally more effectively with anything else that might frustrate you with your culture or with your manager. So, try to be intentional with how you conduct yourself. Be a consummate professional 100% of the time. Don’t every give that away, because that’s the one thing that you can control. And be able to go home at the end of the day feeling good about how you handled yourself and try to make one of your teammates’ days a little brighter if you can and go home feeling good about what you did and finish each week accomplishing the goals that you set for yourself. You’ll create momentum and you’ll start to feel like a player in the game rather than a spectator, which just feels better.


Laura: That’s good advice. Sometimes the only thing we can control is ourselves and not the circumstances around us. So what’s next for you?


John: Well, it’s interesting. I’m excited because I hired a production company out of Los Angeles to do the voice recording of The New Superior, which is going to be out here in the next couple of months, so I’ll do a lot of promoting of that book. So that’s gonna be time consuming. I’ve got some workshops that I’m going to be doing in different parts of the country, but I’m excited about that audio book coming out. I’m thinking about my next writing project, but the other thing I do a podcast called The Crimelab Coachcast and I do it twice a month, and I’ve got some ideas to sort of improve the format of that and to reach a wider audience in forensic science, so I’m going to be putting some effort into that, because the audience is growing and it’s no longer just an experiment for me. It’s something that has a lot of great possibilities. So, I’ve got some goals that I set for myself in 2023 and those are two of them. I’m just trying to keep connecting with people. I still do a lot of one on one coaching with people both in leadership positions and not in leadership positions, so I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing.


Laura: Those are some really exciting projects.


John: I am really excited yeah. I’m glad that I get to do what I do for this particular community. It’s rewarding.


Laura: It’s so nice that you have different ways for people to reach you, whether it’s listening to a podcast, reading a book, or going to a workshop.


John: Right, yeah, exactly.


Laura: It sounds like you’ve been with us a few time and have presented a few times. What brings you back to ISHI?


John: One of the things that I’ve really fallen in love with with this conference is the level of professionalism of the individuals that host it and plan it. The attention to detail. The design of the graphics you see. It’s a very welcoming environment, but one of things that’s really relevant for me is that we’re seeing a lot of decision makers and a higher level of decision makers coming to this conference, so it’s obviously still a forensic biology conference, but we’re seeing people that have a higher level of decision making authority in their laboratories, because I think, like me, they’re very curious about what’s happening in this field and DNA is the driver of a lot of the change that’s taking place within forensic science, so I think a lot of us feel if we can stay connected to this community, it helps us be more aware of what’s happening in forensic science even beyond DNA. So, I love the conference. It’s so well done and I always leave here feeling energized, which you can’t pass up.


Laura: No, it’s a great feeling, and I would agree that watching over the past 10 years has been fantastic. The familiar faces over the year, and I hope to see you come back year after year. Thanks for doing a workshop and taking time for the interview.