When the FBI first conceived of DNA Technical Leaders as a requirement for CODIS eligibility, it sought to ensure that forensic DNA operations were overseen by individuals with sufficient training, education, and experience.

It also knew that many current supervisors of forensic biology units did not have sufficient credentials.

The emergence of technical leaders in forensic DNA units across the United States created one of the most challenging and complex HR problems in the history of forensic science.

Many unit supervisors who did not qualify as technical leaders no longer had full authority over their own units. Leadership was now shared, if you will, between a supervisor and a technical leader, creating ambiguities in authority.

These ambiguities made it difficult to address personnel issues when they arose. Was it a technical problem or an administrative problem? Sometimes the answer was clear. Often times it was not.

When technical leaders report directly to unit supervisors, lines of authority are clear. But when reporting to the laboratory director, things can get a bit interesting.

Since those early CODIS years, many laboratories have created technical leader positions in other disciplines. To the extent these positions provide greater technical expertise, they are a good thing. To the extent some laboratories still struggle to figure out who is in charge of a DNA issue or situation, some tweaking may be in order.

In my executive coaching practice, I’ve worked with several technical leaders seeking to build their leadership and managerial skills. As a result, I’ve come to appreciate the unique challenges and opportunities they face.

Many technical leaders are in the unenviable position of having responsibility for the integrity of laboratory operations without having full control over decisions related to the performance of employees.

In my opinion, whenever possible, the technical leader should be the supervisor of the respective unit. It eliminates confusion in personnel matters and provides a more robust leadership presence when complex challenges arise.

In other instances, having two leadership authorities in a forensic biology/DNA unit (one administrative and one technical) may work fine. When it does, in my experience, it is not because of the arrangement but, rather, because the individuals in those positions know how to collaborate and negotiate effectively with each other.

Being a technical leader is not easy. It is a unique kind of position in forensic science, one with unique challenges.

Common Challenges
The following are some common challenges I hear my technical-leader clients share during coaching sessions:

- I feel overwhelmed
- I can’t keep up with all of the method validations
- I feel like I annoy the scientists in the DNA unit when I intervene on technical issues or problems
- I’m not sure how long I can keep doing this job; it is really wearing me out
- I am frequently butting heads with our unit supervisor
- We have so many improvements we should be making to our technical processes, but I just don’t have the time to make them happen
- I work closely with our staff, but I don’t feel like I really know them, and they don’t really know me
- Sometimes I wish I didn’t have to talk with anyone; I’d rather just make sure the instruments are working and that the scientists are doing their job properly

Some Coaching Advice for DNA Technical Leaders
Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the importance of technical leadership in forensic science laboratories. As the former director of the Michigan State Police Forensic Science Division, I found the counsel and partnerships with our Program Managers (the name given to our technical leaders) to be enormously valuable when faced with technical issues requiring administrative intervention of some kind.

Perhaps the most valuable piece of advice I can give any technical leader (in any discipline) is to work diligently in the building and nurturing of relationships in your unit.

Relationships are the conduits through which leadership flows. Without establishing quality relationships, it becomes almost impossible to lead or influence people in a meaningful way. So if you feel like you're struggling to provide leadership or to have your authority taken seriously in your unit - or even if you are just feeling burned out - ask yourself if you are paying enough attention to the quality of the relationships you have with everyone in your unit.

Among scientific and technical experts, people-skills often take a back seat. This is a mistake that should be avoided like the plague. Build mutual rapport and respect with those you are expected to influence and you will not only find yourself doing a better job, you will enjoy it much more. FSE