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Virtual Leadership – Leveraging Technology to Facilitate Leadership Development During COVID-19

By Lt. Cmdr. Terry Farrell, Navy Reserve Naval Leadership and Ethics Center Public Affairs | Jan. 13, 2021

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With the COVID-19 pandemic threatening an “all stop” to required career milestone leadership and ethics training, the staff of Navy Reserve Naval Leadership and Ethics Center (NR NLEC) used innovation and teamwork to meet the moment — and the Reserve Force mission — head-on. 

Navy Reserve officers are required to complete a formal leadership course every five years. This professional development continuum is not only essential to the continuous improvement of the officer corps, but is also a prerequisite for attaining the Additional Qualification Designation (AQD) for Navy Reserve command qualification.  

As the Chief of Navy Reserve’s executive agent for officer leadership development, NR NLEC is responsible for preparing, scheduling, and facilitating the three courses that make up the continuum.   

Traditionally, NR NLEC facilitators travel to various Navy Reserve Activities throughout the year to facilitate Senior Officer Leadership Courses (SOLC) for commanders (select), commanders, and captains; Reserve Intermediate Leadership Courses (RILC) for chief warrant officers, lieutenants and lieutenant commanders; and Reserve Division Officer Leadership Courses (RDIVOLC) for ensigns and lieutenants junior grade.   

Each course is a two-day seminar promoting professional development in leadership, ethics, self-awareness and decision making, enabling the development of more than 2,000 Navy Reserve officers each year. 

Between October 2019 and March 2020, NR NLEC facilitators conducted 36 officer leadership courses, positively impacting the leadership development of 827 Reserve officers. The unit was on track to complete 90 courses by the end of Fiscal Year 2020. 
 
When the COVID-19 pandemic set in and the Restriction of Movement (ROM) orders were put into effect, 29 classes from the end of March through the beginning of June were cancelled — jeopardizing the command’s mission. 

“When we shut down the in-person courses we were at first unsure what our options could be,” said Capt. Clay Green, NR NLEC training department head. “Several facilitators at NLEC, including myself and Lt. Cmdr. Ashley Prisant, teach courses at universities, and were already delivering our university courses online by the February-March time frame as the pandemic unfolded.” 

According to Prisant, the prospect of transitioning to a virtual environment, particularly within the military construct, presented many potential roadblocks.   

“Many people think that you can simply transform an in-person course to a virtual one, and that is simply not the case,” said Prisant, the RILC course lead. “The content or material may transfer to some extent, but the engagement does not. Conversations that were natural in face-to-face discussions are awkward in a virtual format.”   

NR NLEC transformed the curricula of three courses into virtual formats without sacrificing any critical elements or exercises vital to accomplishing course goals. It wasn’t easy. Facilitator guides had to be revised to translate to virtual presentations. Instruction on the use of the platform, its features and capabilities, had to be conducted for each of NR NLEC’s 28 Facilitators until they were proficient.   

NR NLEC required every member of its staff to attend at least a portion of the pilot course to see, firsthand, how the content translated to a virtual environment and what, if any, additional challenges would need to be made. The staff began compiling a list of lessons learned from each succeeding virtual course. 

One critical issue the staff was forced to tackle with the transition to a virtual environment was the inclusion of Senior Enlisted Leaders (SEL) in the RILC course. In the traditional format, the NR NLEC staff typically relied on the SEL of the command where the course was being hosted to speak to students about the importance of the relationship between chiefs and officers.

“A good Chiefs Mess or wardroom alone cannot achieve command excellence,” said Navy Reserve Force Master Chief Chris Kotz during a recent session  “It is only when these two vital bodies of leaders work closely together can the command achieve and sustain excellence.  It is at the chief petty officer and junior officer leadership level that trust forms great and lasting relationships. The senior enlisted leader participation in the Officer Leadership Courses is a great way to explain and foster this relationship.”  

From the early stages of the pandemic, all NR NLEC team members pulled together to brainstorm, creating a plan that could be executed in a short amount of time.  

“I’m truly amazed at the professionalism and teamwork of this unit,” said Capt. Mark Haigis, NR NLEC’s commanding officer. “Within one month of providing commander’s guidance to make the transformation to a virtual construct, this team had worked through the curricula, information technology and administrative challenges of doing so and were ready to start executing.”   

Through the several months that the virtual construct has been utilized, the team has continued to meet virtually in large and small forums to update, adjust and fine-tune the three courses.  Course leads and unit leadership monitor course surveys to continuously improve the product, and unit members continue to work closely with the active staff at NLEC to coordinate IT tool usage, licenses and to develop and maintain facilitator and student portals.   

NR NLEC worked closely with its active component counterparts at NETC, NLEC and with CNRFC to complete its first, virtual test course, June 6. Since that time, NR NLEC’s 28 members have completed over 50 virtual OLC courses, reaching over 1,100 officers and ensuring the Reserve Force is able to continue meeting the five-year mandatory Officer Leadership Course requirement. 

Cmdr. Chris Herrick, NR NLEC’s executive officer praised his team’s effort, an “adapt and overcome” style push. 

“The entire team took each challenge presented and pushed through them,” said Herrick. “Not one person said ‘that belongs to someone else to figure out, not me.’ I had tremendous pride in our team before COVID and it has only grown with how everyone has worked together to make this happen.” 

The NR NLEC staff  continues to execute its mission seamlessly, conducting virtual versions of all three leadership continuum courses multiple times per month for Reserve Officers across the globe, while continuously improving the quality of each course along the way. 

“The NR NLEC augment unit's mission, a vital component of the Naval Education and Training Command/Force Development Reserve Enterprise, directly supports the Chief of Navy Reserve's Fighting Instructions 2020 ‘Theory of the Fight’ methodology to maximize our Reserve Sailors' warfighting readiness — which is priority one,” said Rear Adm. Robert Nowakowski, Deputy Commander, Naval Education and Training Command. 

Course schedules for SOLC, RILC and RDIVOLC supporting officer leadership development can be accessed via the Catalog of Navy Courses (CANTRAC) at https://app.prod.cetars.training.nav.mil/cantrac/vol2.html. 

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