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Before officers receive the keys to the ship or the corner office of a shore command, they must head to Newport, R.I., and complete Command Leadership School. And new this year in a continued effort to forge better leaders the school has added an "examination" as part of the two-week course.
Commanding officers can't really fail the exam, or flunk out of the school. It's not intended as a screening tool, explained school director Capt. Michael Slotsky.
CLS is more like a leadership finishing school for COs, executive officers and command master chiefs, and even some of their spouses.
Alongside 29 to 34 classmates, prospective COs spend two weeks learning about ethics, communication, how to work with their XOs and CMCs, and how command climate is the best indicator of how they are leading.
"This is not the crucible of command," Slotsky said.
Only COs complete the Prospective Commanding Officer Examination. Despite its name, it's not a test more of a self-reflection. The entire class is given a case study and an essay question to address. The exercise is supposed to help them gather and evaluate their own thoughts on command.
Their essays are evaluated by CLS instructors all former skippers or command master chiefs who use a rubric to determine whether the officer's views of leadership put him on track for a successful command tour.
If the essay draws concerns, the individual receives remedial counseling with instructors to adjust his focus, Slotsky said.
Less than 5 percent of prospective COs need remediation; fewer than 10 officers spread over eight classes have required remediation since the examination officially began in July. Every officer who needed help has been able to adjust and become a better leader, Slotsky said.
"We're not all created equal. Our leadership is going to be different by individual. … It's an art, so sitting down with someone is OK," he said.
Later, COs and XOs participate in a 360-degree feedback exercise where officers rate their own strengths and weaknesses, then pick bosses, peers and subordinates to provide constructive criticism.
"It's not out to grade you or select you. It's about leader development," Slotsky said. "It's about making you a better leader. And I would say 90 to 95 percent of our folks take that onboard."
Prospective COs and XOs then meet with "coaches" for around two hours to learn what their strengths and weaknesses are.
Using 360-degree reviews with CMCs has been piloted in the past, but it's not part of the curriculum.
Through the course, the subject of CO firings is discussed, but not much, Slotsky said.
They use case studies and other "material from the past" to dissect command failures to better understand what went wrong and how problems can subtly develop before a problem becomes clear. And rising skippers don't aspire to fail, Slotsky said.
"I think they say, ‘That's not going to happen to me.' They say, ‘I'm going to use my triad. I'm going to be positive in leadership; I'm going to be successful in command. I don't want to let my family down. I don't want to let my command down. I don't want to let my Navy down that places so much trust in me.'" Slotsky said. "It gives them pause; it causes them to reflect."