April’s Leadership on Main featured Charles “Charlie” Johnston, Supervisory Senior Resident Agent at the FBI Akron office and was moderated by Bill Fairweather, retired CIA. Johnston’s leadership style focuses on "leading where you are" and recognizing and developing strengths in those he leads.
Johnston grew up in northeast Ohio and earned his undergraduate degree in criminal justice. He began his career in corrections after college, before pursuing a Juris Doctorate in law. After serving as an assistant prosecutor, he joined the FBI as an office agent in Detroit, dealing with gangs, drugs and organized crime. Johnston was later promoted to the FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C. He served a few years in this role before seeking an opportunity to return home to northeast, Ohio. “There’s something about people wanting to come home here. There’s a lot to be said about that,” Johnston added. After he finishes his seven-year term as Supervisory Senior Resident Agent with the FBI, Johnston intends to step down and continue his career in Akron.
The FBI consists of 56 field offices; Ohio is one of the only states that has two. The Cleveland division extends from the Pennsylvania border to Toledo and the Michigan border, and to just north of Columbus. In the FBI Akron office, a branch of the Cleveland division, Johnston leads a staff of 12 agents, seven task force officers, and additional support staff. The FBI has coverage in over 200 countries and often gets calls about United States citizen situations taking place outside the United States border. In larger FBI offices, there are special agent squads in focus areas such as a bank robbery squad, a drug squad, a white-collar squad, etc. In Akron, all 12 agents must be well-rounded to cover all areas.
According to Johnston, one of the most important aspects when covering an area as big as Akron is to build partnerships with local law enforcement. “We have one of the best working relationships I’ve ever been a part of with the Akron Police Department,” Johnston said. “There’s this perception on TV that there’s a bank robbery and the FBI says ‘it’s okay, we’ve got it from here.’ But I have never experienced that.” In addition to law enforcement partnerships, Johnston puts an emphasis on the importance of building meaningful relationships within the community and the private sector. The Citizens Academy was established to give everyday citizens a behind-the-scenes look at the FBI in Akron and how they conduct their work. “After 9/11 we realized that we can’t be everywhere; we can’t see everything or hear everything, so having strategic partnerships out in the real world is important,” Johnston said.
The FBI’s brand is one of the staples of American justice. To Charles Johnston and agents around the globe, FBI not only stands for the Federal Bureau of Investigation, it also stands for fidelity, bravery, and integrity. “That’s a motto on our seal and it’s something you have to earn. It is something we take very seriously,” Johnston said. These three words are the cornerstone that help Johnston and his team address some of the biggest challenges facing the organization: restoring public trust, staying current with technology, and increasing diversity in the ranks of the FBI so that agents better reflect the communities they serve. “The FBI is made up of people just like any organization … despite what the media portrayal is, the people in my office really show up every day and go to work,” he said.
When it comes to leadership, Johnston emphasizes leading where you are. “You don’t have to have a title to be a leader,” he added. There is often a challenge differentiating between management and leadership. “A leader isn’t really a leader until the first crisis,” Johnston said. “Someone can walk through the door and say ‘I’m the boss,’ okay, fine. But when that first crisis moment comes along, your people are going to look to see how you react … that is something that comes with experience, time, and being flexible.” Within his team dynamic, Johnston says that it is important to be intentional and deliberate in recognizing the leadership potential in others and giving them the opportunity to grow. “If a person doesn’t like public speaking but you know they’re good at it and they need to develop that, I’ve pushed some folks into that. People have done that for me along the way,” Johnston mentioned.
Though leading the FBI can seem like a daunting task, Charles Johnston uses his leadership and passion for the Akron community to make a lasting impact on those the FBI serves on a daily basis. His commitment to his people and emphasis on leading where you set an example for leading the Akron-way.
For more perspectives from Charles Johnston, tune in to the Leadership Akron
podcast and hear bonus features from April’s Leadership on Main.