The Army Lawyer | Issue 1 2022View PDF
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It was the fourteenth week of a twenty-six week deployment in Kuwait when Specialist (SPC) Smith’s platoon sergeant, Sergeant First Class (SFC) Jones, received a frantic phone call from SPC Smith’s girlfriend.1 She stated that she was upset that she had allowed SPC Smith to make a video of them having intercourse, and now that they are breaking up, SPC Smith has threatened to put the video on the internet for the world to see.

To the leaders reading this article, pause for a second and think about what you would do if you were the leader receiving this phone call about one of your Soldiers.

Within two hours of receiving the phone call from SPC Smith’s girlfriend, SFC Jones had SPC Smith report to his office for a formal2 event-oriented3 counseling. Sergeant First Class Jones handed the typed counseling to SPC Smith and told him to read it. The counseling stated in part, “SPC Smith, you will not post any videos showing sexual intercourse without the consent of the other party in the video or you may face UCMJ action.” When SPC Smith finished reading, SFC Jones continued to try to impress upon SPC Smith the repercussions he could face if he posted the video.

The above scenario is based on a true story that is, unfortunately, all too common for Soldiers and leaders to see on deployments. Too often, members of the Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps read about these happenings in a law enforcement report, prompting them to interview the chain of command to clarify the efforts they put in to counseling after the event occurred. Judge advocates also do this to clarify what the accused actually said and heard, in order to assist the trial team with potentially admitting those statements at later adverse proceedings.

Here, though, SPC Smith’s story never made it to the courtroom. Sergeant First Class Jones told Major (MAJ) Knight, the battalion supply officer (S4), about the event and how he had handled it. Major Knight immediately found SPC Smith, pulled him into an empty conference room, and closed the door. Major Knight started by asking what happened.4 Specialist Smith did not respond, instead opting to look at the floor. Major Knight then stated he heard SPC Smith and his girlfriend are breaking up and what SPC Smith threatened to do.

Major Knight then asked, “You know if you posted that video it would be wrong, right?” Specialist Smith continued to stare at the floor. Major Knight continued, “I know you know it would be wrong, but you want to do it because you’re hurting.” Specialist Smith interrupted with a defensive tone, “Nope; I’m pissed.” Major Knight responded, “I understand what you are going through. I have been in your shoes when someone I cared a lot about did something that hurt me. I know what it feels like, to feel that pain and want to do something to the other person so they feel pain as well.” Specialist Smith kept looking at the floor.

most successful leaders work on building relationships in the good times to solidify the commitment that will sustain them through the rough times.

After a few seconds of silence, MAJ Knight continued to share his experience of being hurt in a romantic relationship. Major Knight suggested SPC Smith reach out to someone he trusts or to behavioral health, and be honest with what is going on before ending the conversation with, “I’m here for you if you trust me.” After a long pause, SPC Smith started to cry. He tried to talk but he could not quite make out words. Major Knight consoled him and stated, “It’s alright, man; I’ve been there.”

About a week later, SPC Smith stopped MAJ Knight in the hall and told him that he has never felt as much a part of a team as he did on that team. As far as the Army knows, SPC Smith never posted any video of his now-ex-girlfriend online.

This article highlights how an effective counseling program can help a leader better accomplish the mission and improve the organization as a whole. An effective counseling program works toward these goals by establishing a meaningful relationship and enhancing two-way feedback for mission success and personal growth. Accordingly, most successful leaders work on building relationships in the good times to solidify the commitment that will sustain them through the rough times.5 These considerations nest within the Army’s “people first” campaign, which leaders should keep in mind when reflecting and developing their leadership style.6

For leaders in the field to have the kind of effect MAJ Knight had in the vignette, they should build relationships early so that similar counselings will be more effective.7 There will always be struggles in the workplace, ranging from being overworked to personal issues. A strong relationship with subordinates will help a leader be more effective with either problem set, and a fortified counseling program is one way to help establish that relationship at the outset. A counseling program is not the only way that a leader can establish a relationship, but this article discusses how a counseling program can improve that relationship.

An effective counseling program can be a skeleton or structured plan for a leader to build relationships deliberately with each subordinate and not just rely on individuals being naturally willing to follow the leader or to be self-motivated to work hard and accomplish the mission.8 The structure of this plan should include informal initial counseling, initial counseling, quarterly counseling, end-of-rated period counseling, and event-oriented counseling. The counseling program will help establish a relationship between the leader and subordinate, assist a leader to provide purpose, direction, and motivation to the subordinate, allow for meaningful feedback between the parties, and ensure that a subordinate can predict how to be successful and not be surprised by their annual evaluation report. In helping leaders improve, this article addresses the purpose of an effective counseling program and then provides some practical tips.

The Purpose of an Effective Counseling Program

“Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.”9

While Army leaders believe they should counsel, many fail to do it.10 An effective counseling program will enable a leader to build relationships with subordinates and provide purpose, direction, and motivation.11 Put more succinctly, “counseling is the secret sauce of leadership”12 that “can also serve as an individual’s professional development plan.”13

The doctrinal definition of counseling is “the process used by leaders to guide subordinates to improve performance and develop their potential.”14 Counseling will usually occur between a leader and their direct subordinate.15 Formal counseling has a written component; informal counseling does not.

At the very minimum, leaders should complete quarterly counseling sessions with their subordinates for two reasons. First, the Army mandates that rating supervisors provide four counseling sessions per year to certain subordinates.16 Second, a good counseling program can provide the foundation and structure for a leader to become more dynamic in their role.

The Army Mandates Counseling

Army Regulation (AR) 623-3 states, “counseling will be conducted within 30 days after the beginning of the rating period, and quarterly thereafter, for NCOs, WO1s, chief warrant officers two (CW2s), lieutenants (LTs) (includes first lieutenants (1LTs) and second lieutenants (2LTs)), and captains (CPTs).”17 In reality, many Soldiers do not receive quarterly counseling.18 Even though it is required by Army regulation, leaders who fail to counsel their subordinates face virtually no repercussions for not doing so. If a leader meets the mission, their evaluation will rarely reflect whether or not they dedicated time to develop their subordinates. Additionally, rated Soldiers cannot appeal an unfavorable evaluation based solely on the contention that the subordinate was never counseled.19 In order to emphasize mandated counseling, the Army needs to reevaluate and change this aspect of leading personnel.

Leaders have two ways they can personally effect this change: 1) they can show the value of an effective counseling program, or 2) they can mandate junior leaders to have a counseling program. Leaders should show their subordinate leaders how an effective counseling program can be a powerful tool to enhance that subordinate to in-turn be a more effective leader. If the junior leaders cannot see the value in an effective counseling program, senior leaders should hold subordinates to the Army standard—their failure to counsel should be reflected on their evaluation. Senior leaders should inform their junior leaders of this requirement in their counseling sessions so they know what is expected of them.

Counseling Is a Great Tool to Be a Dynamic Leader

Counseling enables a leader to build meaningful relationships with their subordinates, improves transparency by setting expectations and communicating observations during the rated period, enables two-way communication, enables a leader to provide purpose, and enables a leader to conduct mentoring activities.20 Additionally, establishing a structured counseling program helps a leader ensure they are not only focused on a subset of their subordinates, whether that subset includes those to whom the leader is naturally drawn or those who are low performers that demand attention. A structured counseling program ensures the leader spends one-on-one time with each of their subordinates.

Counseling Enables Leaders to Build Meaningful Relationships with Their Subordinates

Relationships are core to your job. If you think you can [fulfill your responsibilities as a manager] without strong relationships, you are kidding yourself. I’m not saying that unchecked power, control, or authority can’t work. They work especially well in a baboon troop or a totalitarian regime.21

Having a structured counseling program prioritizes a leader’s time to get to know22 and develop their subordinates. The time dedicated to one-on-one conversations should always have a relationship-building aspect to it. It may seem obvious, but the first step in building a relationship with a subordinate is for a leader to actually care about a subordinate and want them to succeed.23 This interest in subordinates must be genuine and not perfunctory.

Building a meaningful relationship with a subordinate is no different than building a friendship.24 The leader should be curious about the people they work with,25 talk with them, and find common interests. To establish the relationship, a leader simply has to care about their subordinate and their success and well-being.26

By taking time to address a subordinate’s development, the leader sends the message to each individual subordinate that the leader prioritizes taking care of each subordinate and is interested in their individual growth and development. When a subordinate understands that their leader genuinely cares for their success, it will build the subordinate’s trust in the leader. When a subordinate trusts their supervisor, they will follow them and commit to that leader, not just look out for themselves.27 This commitment to the leader, and the team as a whole, increases team-wide productivity.28

A meaningful relationship between subordinate and leader is vital to individual development and overall mission success. Establishing strong relationships will improve communication and increase the effectiveness of feedback.29 Providing clear feedback is an essential role of any leader in an organization.30 If a relationship is already built, and the subordinate trusts the leader, the feedback will be better received and more impactful.31

Meaningful relationships are also important for leaders because they help leaders motivate their subordinates. In order to motivate a person, a leader has to understand that person. Soldiers are dedicated members of the profession of arms, but they are also “smart, creative, freethinking individuals—human beings.”32 Counseling is a great opportunity to provide individual attention in a one-on-one setting. It also enables a leader to learn what is important to their subordinates. After a leader has an understanding of a Soldier, they can better tailor their leadership style to help foster the growth of that Soldier. Additionally, if a leader knows an individual enjoys doing certain tasks, a leader can assign those tasks to that individual.33

A practical tip for improving relationships is to maintain a leader’s notebook. Not every leader will have a knack for remembering all names, dates, and activities that are important to a subordinate. But when a leader does remember a specific detail about a subordinate, it makes the subordinate feel like the leader actually cares about them.34 Therefore, a leader should put some effort into remembering the details.

Counseling Improves Transparency by Setting Expectations and Communicating Observations During the Rated Period35

Soldiers want to be successful and be seen as successful by their leaders. Therefore, a leader should clearly communicate to their subordinates what it means to be successful from the leader’s perspective.36 If a leader can make it clear what success looks like, it will provide direction to the subordinate regarding where to focus their efforts.37

Throughout the rated period, a counseling program ensures both the leader and rated Soldier agree, or are at least aware, of how their performance is measuring up. A leader should record the progress and discuss their observations in the counseling sessions and then make a record for both parties to reference after the counseling session.38 This practice will ensure that a Soldier never feels surprised when they receive their evaluation.39

The ultimate job of a leader in an organization is to help a subordinate develop and better accomplish the mission.40 A meaningful relationship between subordinate and leader is vital, as it will increase the effectiveness of given feedback.

Counseling Enables a Leader to Facilitate Two-Way Communication

If a leader has a meaningful relationship with a subordinate and has clearly communicated what the subordinate can expect from their leader, one-on-one interactions can be a two-way communication where both parties grow. The ultimate goal of leadership in the Army is to “accomplish the mission and improve the organization.”41 This includes developing and improving the leader, as well as their subordinate.

The subordinate’s feedback is irreplaceable as they have real-time information about how the leader is managing and may have ideas on how to improve the organization. If a leader can get an exchange of ideas from the subordinate, this will help improve the organization and increase the buy-in from the subordinate to accomplish the mission.42 Subordinates are more likely to give such suggestions in one-on-one counseling sessions after they feel comfortable with the leader.43

Even more motivating than working in an organization where an individual believes in its purpose is doing work that coincides with one’s own sense of purpose.

Counseling Enables a Leader to Provide Purpose

When an individual understands the purpose for their team, it gives them motivation44 and empowers them to act without micromanagement. It is incumbent on the leader to provide this purpose to their team.45 The purpose, or the “why,” is the overarching reason for the team’s existence based on the mission that needs to be accomplished. An individual that knows why they are doing something is more likely to buy in to that mission, know how to act with less direction, and meet the commander’s intent more often.46

Simply stated, before a leader can communicate the purpose of their section, a leader must know and understand the purpose of their section. If a leader needs clarity or inspiration of the team’s purpose, there are several great sources that can assist the leader.47 For example, a leader can ask their direct supervisor to explain the purpose of the team. A leader can talk to their predecessor or peers who hold a similar position. A leader can also study the history of the unit/team they are joining and find purpose in the great things the unit has accomplished.48

At a minimum, an effective leader should know the purpose of the U.S. Army, their organization, their team, and how each of these nests within the other. The purpose of the U.S. Army is “[t]o deploy, fight, and win our Nation’s wars by providing ready, prompt, and sustained land dominance by Army forces across the full spectrum of conflict as part of the Joint Force.”49 No matter which Army organization a leader finds themselves serving with, the organization’s purpose must further the Army’s overall purpose. Accordingly, the team’s purpose should also further that organization’s purpose.

The more narrowly tailored a purpose is to the team’s direct work, the more helpful and meaningful it will be to the individuals on that team. Adopting the Army’s mission is a good fallback plan, but a leader should strive to make the purpose more personal and closer to subordinates’ daily efforts. To “fight and win the Nation’s wars” does not help a battalion paralegal know what to do in the absence of direction on a day-to-day basis. However, if the leader provides a narrower purpose by pointing out that it is “because of criminal justice professionals—those in law enforcement, corrections, and courts—we can trust that we can travel home, to work, and/or out in public, safely and securely,” 50 the same battalion paralegal will be able to apply this purpose when they are in a new situation absent direct guidance. It shows how the paralegal matters and is part of a bigger picture.

The more meaningful the purpose is to the leader, the more meaningful it will be to the subordinate. When a leader provides the purpose to his team, a leader needs to be consistent with their messaging. It is easier to be consistent with the purpose if the leader has taken time to think about it and truly believes in it.

Unless the focus of a counseling session is on relationship building, all counseling sessions should include, to some extent, the purpose of the team. If a member of your team does not know the answer to the question, “What is the purpose behind your team?” they have not internalized the purpose. Consequently, it will not help guide them in the absence of direct instruction, and it will not motivate them to complete the mission.

Even more motivating than working in an organization where an individual believes in its purpose is doing work that coincides with one’s own sense of purpose. One-on-one counseling provides an opportunity for a leader to find out a subordinate’s personal purpose. Knowing what drives a subordinate can help a leader realign their duties to fit the purpose. If a leader does this, their subordinates will often work harder and enjoy their work more.

Counseling Enables a Leader to Conduct Mentoring Activities

Leaders should take time to get to know their subordinates’ career histories and individual goals and, ultimately, assist their subordinates to progress toward those goals.51 When a leader can align an individual’s long-term goals to short-term tasks, that person will be more motivated to complete those tasks.52 Additionally, when a leader takes the time to address career goals, this sends a clear message the leader is not just interested in how the subordinate can help the leader’s evaluation, but that the leader also wants the subordinate to succeed in ways that are important to the subordinate.

Mentors traditionally hold the role of giving counsel for professional and personal growth.53 Mentoring activities are those activities for which a leader “applies experience . . . shares knowledge, provides challenges, and addresses questions” through “conversation on a personal level” that focuses on the “professional or personal growth” of a subordinate.54 Because mentorship is a voluntary relationship, counseling alone should not be considered mentorship.55 However, a leader should still perform mentoring activities because the leader should care about their subordinates’ long-term goals and help them achieve those goals.

Leaders must engage in these mentoring activities as a part of their counseling program with all their subordinates. Doing so can help reduce possible perceived biases within the team that are often created when a subordinate naturally seeks out a mentoring relationship with that leader outside of counseling. Naturally, some subordinates will reach out to the supervisor as a mentor. If a leader fails to conduct these mentorship activities with everyone, subordinates may perceive favoritism.56 By conducting mentoring activities with all subordinates, a leader removes this possibility and supports the entire team.

A Suggested Structure for Effective Counseling

A leader who wants to meet all of the above objectives might wonder how to best structure their counseling program. This section provides general guidance and recommendations for counseling sessions in some of the most common counseling scenarios. The scenarios include the first informal initial, formal initial, quarterly, end-of-rated-period, informal periodic, and negative event-oriented counseling sessions.

(Credit: Gajus –

General Tips for Counseling Sessions

There are several tips that can help a leader be more effective in counseling sessions. This section covers four quick tips of which a leader must always be cognizant. A leader must 1) always ensure there is enough time allotted for the counseling session, 2) be aware of the subordinate’s time, 3) be fully present and not distracted during the counseling, and 4) for performance-related counseling, a leader should also understand what type of evaluation report their subordinate will be receiving to help set the subordinate up for success.

With all counseling sessions, the leader must make time for the interactions. A subordinate will not make a connection with a leader if they feel like they are inconveniencing the leader or have inconvenienced them in the past. A best practice is to put the counseling on the calendar and, if it must be rescheduled, ensure the subordinate knows the counseling is a priority and will be rescheduled as soon as possible. A good rule of thumb is that a counseling session should not take more than an hour.57 A leader should expect to clear their schedule for at least an hour for each counseling session.58

It is important that counseling sessions do not keep a subordinate after hours or during lunch.59 Developing subordinates is a part of a leader’s job, so schedule it during the workday. If a leader schedules a counseling session too close to the end of the day and the subordinate has to stay late, they are going to be distracted.

It is important that a leader is fully present during all counseling sessions.60 A leader should turn away from their computer, face the subordinate, and ensure they can focus on the task.61 If there are other obligations that are going to be distracting, it is important that the leader remove those distractions.

A leader must understand the various evaluation reports their subordinates will receive.62 A leader must be familiar with the differences between an officer evaluation report63 and a noncommissioned officer evaluation report.64 Leaders must also understand the difference between evaluation types for junior and senior noncommissioned officers and commissioned officers. Similarly, a leader must understand the differences in the associated support forms.65 A leader must be aware of these differences during routine counseling in order to best set their subordinates up for success.

Tips for Each Type of Counseling Session

Informal Initial Counseling

The first counseling session any leader should have is an informal initial counseling focusing on establishing a relationship.66 This should be the first of many positive counseling sessions between leader and subordinate. This meeting should be informal and should not have a written component. The leader should find out about the individual’s family situation, names, and ages of their children; why they joined the Army; why they chose their profession; hobbies and interests; and other personal information that assists the leader in building a working relationship. This will start to build a meaningful relationship between the parties and sends the message to the subordinate that the leader cares about them as an individual.67 There should be little to no talk about work.

A leader should prepare for quarterly counseling sessions with the same diligence they would prepare for a meeting with a commander or other senior leader.

A leader should have a system to remember details because details matter. Whether it is keeping a leader’s book, personnel file for every person, a mnemonic device, etc., a leader should choose a system that works for them so that they can remember details later. This will help further relationships and help a leader relate to their subordinates better.68

If the subordinate has just moved to the location, give the individual time to settle their family and ensure the subordinate knows that, though the leader is looking forward to working with them, work can wait. No one can focus and be their best self at work when their family is not taken care of at home. Usually the mission will not fail because a leader authorized a few extra days for a new teammate to get acclimated. If the team was able to stay afloat the week prior to the new Soldier arriving, they can survive a little longer.

Formal Initial Counseling

Usually a short time after the informal initial counseling, a leader should conduct the formal initial counseling. This should be the second positive counseling session between a leader and subordinate. The initial counseling is where the leader gives an outline of what the individual’s job is, how they fit into the team, and what to expect from the leader.69 Without this clarity, an individual may try their best to do a job they think they are supposed to do, and the leader may get frustrated that the individual is not doing the job the leader expects them to do. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the leader to clarify their expectations and intent during the initial counseling.

The leader must clearly communicate the purpose of the team. The Army practices mission command,70 which only works if subordinates can make decisions in the absence of micromanagement. If a subordinate understands the purpose of the team and the mission, they are able to act in the absence of direct guidance.

The subordinate should leave the counseling with a document that summarizes everything discussed and a copy of the leader’s evaluation support form. It is important the subordinate leaves with a copy of everything so they have something to reference during the rated period as required. It is also important they leave with the leader’s support form so they can better understand what the leader’s job and focus is and nest their own focus accordingly.

Quarterly Counseling

After conducting the initial counseling, leaders should use the quarterly counseling sessions to refine an individual’s role, set objective goals, and discuss the individual’s performance. A majority of the time, this should be an overall positive counseling session between the leader and the subordinate. Between quarterly counseling sessions, a leader should take notes in preparation for the upcoming sessions.71 This enables the leader to discuss concrete examples of sustains and improves during later counseling sessions.72 Additionally, writing these events down will help the leader eventually draft the end-of-year evaluation.

A leader should add structure and thought to quarterly counseling sessions by sending an email with expectations of the counseling session and topics to be discussed. This action helps alleviate some of the stress for the subordinate and sets the tone for a positive interaction. For example, a leader could say, “we are going talk about three things you think you are doing well at work, three things you want to improve at work, one thing you want to improve in your personal life, and three ways I (the leader) can improve.”73 Though the wording of the email puts the onus on the subordinate, the leader should have notes on all topics as well. Another option leaders have used in the field is to conduct quarterly counseling using the annual evaluation report to guide the discussion.74 If that is the case, the leader should send an email and tell the subordinate to be prepared to discuss what was accomplished in each portion of the evaluation report and what goals are for the remainder of the evaluation period.

A leader should prepare for quarterly counseling sessions with the same diligence they would prepare for a meeting with a commander or other senior leader. The leader should take written notes during the counseling session and send a synopsis of those notes to the subordinate to ensure both individuals are clear on what the counseling session covered and any due-outs. Giving this level of attention and detail will communicate to the subordinate how important the counseling process is and set the tone for future counseling sessions.

End-of-Rated-Period Counseling

Prior to the end-of-rated-period counseling, the leader should send the subordinate their draft evaluation report.75 If a leader has done a good job counseling throughout the rated period, this counseling will not surprise the subordinate and can be a positive counseling session where the parties discuss the accomplishments of the rated period and how the subordinate can continue to grow. In order for this to happen, the subordinate has to submit their final evaluation report support form in a timely manner. It is important that the leader send the draft evaluation to the subordinate so they have the opportunity to read the evaluation before the counseling. This enables the subordinate to provide input and discuss any requested changes they are asking to be made.76 If no changes are requested, the leader should discuss the important points of the evaluation and how the subordinate can continue to develop in the organization during this counseling.

Informal Periodic Counseling

Throughout the time a leader has a subordinate in their charge, it is important the leader periodically check in with them. These check-ins should all be seen as small, positive counseling sessions, building on the meaningful relationship between the parties. Checking in with individuals on a regular basis is essential for a leader to understand what normal is for each person and to be accessible to their subordinates. Some leaders walk around their office daily and ensure that they speak to every person. To develop more meaningful relationships, some leaders will elect to have longer conversations with different people each day.

These check-ins should range from stopping by the subordinate’s work area, to asking a subordinate to stop by the leader’s office. At a minimum, a leader should stop by their Soldier’s work area periodically to gain a better understanding of the work environment and use these visits as an opportunity to publicly praise their subordinate, when appropriate. These visits should be personal in nature and topics could range from asking about their children, to commenting on their exceptional effort at physical training that morning. However, if the conversation will likely be more in-depth or personal in nature, a leader should ask the subordinate to drop by their office to have those conversations. These bigger events could range from a subordinate going to a promotion board to having their first child.77 Each of these events should be acknowledged by the leader and talked through with the subordinate.

Another way to think about the importance of ongoing counseling: “You can think of it in the negative. If you want to regret not seeing the signs that a Soldier is struggling and have to live with survivor’s guilt, then don’t have a counseling program.”78 Suicide and other negative, life-altering decisions occur too often among Soldiers in the Army.79 If a leader walks around and has a feeling for what normal is for their subordinates, they may be able to notice when something is abnormal and ask to talk with them in their office.

Regular check-ins with individuals and teams further relationship building with each person. The regular check-ins will help the leader to further develop meaningful relationships and will facilitate the two-way conversations a leader should strive for in an effective counseling program. When doing the periodic check-ins, ensure to relate to individuals and ask about things that are important to them (which could have been learned in the initial informal counseling or follow-on counseling sessions).

Negative Event-Oriented Counseling

Negative, event-oriented80 counseling is, unfortunately, common in the Army.81 If this is the only counseling a leader does and there is no meaningful relationship between the parties, this will likely be seen as a negative counseling experience and the counseling will likely not be as effective and could even be a barrier to a meaningful relationship. However, if there is a meaningful relationship between the parties, the counseling session may be seen as a positive interaction between the parties as the subordinate could be grateful that the leader is trying to help.82

Depending on the severity of the issue, negative feedback should build from a short conversation about an issue, to a longer conversation, to a written counseling if the issue continues. If a leader goes directly to written counseling, it may place a subordinate on the defensive and can deter them from taking risks in the future. Of course, a leader will have to decide if the severity of the issue warrants quicker escalation to a written counseling.

When addressing the issue, it is important that the feedback focuses on how to get better and not on punishment.83 Additionally, the focus should be on the behavior and not the character of the individual receiving the feedback.84 If their character is attacked, an individual will often get defensive and the feedback may unnecessarily harm the relationship.

When giving feedback, asking the subordinate questions will often lead them to discuss what the issue was and a way to solve it (being mindful not to violate the Soldier’s Article 31, UCMJ, rights).85 This technique is particularly effective because it can help reduce the perception the leader is attacking the subordinate and makes the process more collaborative.86 Simultaneously, the leader is still addressing the issue.


A counseling session can be a positive experience for the leader or the subordinate. Counseling sessions, if done correctly, can enable a leader to build a meaningful relationship with their subordinate, improve transparency by setting expectations and communicating observations during the rated period, facilitate two-way communication, provide purpose, and conduct mentoring activities. When a counseling program is executed correctly, it can help develop relationships, stimulate growth, increase mission accomplishment, and leaders and subordinates become more effective. In short, counseling enables leaders to better care for their Soldiers—to have the same type of effect MAJ Knight had on SPC Smith. TAL

MAJ Wood is a law professor at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, New York.


1. The names, dates, locations, and other immaterial facts have been changed to protect the identity of the individuals.

2. “Formal” refers to a counseling session that is recorded by a writing in some fashion, traditionally on a DA Form 4856. See U.S. Dep’t of Army, Form 4856, Developmental Counseling Form (July 2014).

3. U.S. Dep’t of Army, Tech. Pub. 6-22.1, The Counseling Process para. 1-5 (1 July 2014) [hereinafter ATP 6-22.1] (“Event-oriented counseling involves a specific event or situation.”).

4. This article will not discuss the possible evidentiary and UCMJ Article 31(b) issues raised in this vignette.

5. Simon Sinek, How to Discover Your “Why” in Difficult Times, TED (Apr. 2021), (“It’s very hard to start building those relationships in the moment of crisis. And I think it’s a lesson for leadership, quite frankly. Which is, you can’t judge the quality of a crew by how a ship performs in calm waters. You judge the quality of a crew by how a ship performs in rough waters. But the time in calm waters is when you’re building relationship and trust . . . .”).

6. U.S. Dep’t of Army, The Army People Strategy 12 (2019) [hereinafter The Army People Strategy] (“Amplify the positive behaviors that align with our vision of cohesive teams: civility and positive relationships; diversity, equity and inclusion; honor and respect; empathy; and care for Soldier and Civilian well-being.”).

7. Major (MAJ) Knight had not established much of a relationship with Specialist (SPC) Smith prior to the introductory vignette. However, since the event, SPC Smith has viewed MAJ Knight as a mentor and has reached out several times after the time they worked together.

8. ATP 6-22.1, supra note 3, para. 1-21 (“Documentation of this [personal growth counseling] results in an individual development plan. Each individual development plan will vary as every person’s needs and interests are different.”).

9. Andrea Serio, What “Leadership” Means to JWMI Alumni, Jack Welch Mgmt. Inst. (Dec. 13, 2019), (quoting Jack Welch).

10. 14 Simple Ways to Connect with Your People, Mil. Leader, (last visited Sept. 16, 2021) (“If there’s a personal activity that military leaders routinely fail at, it’s counseling.”).

11. ATP 6-22.1, supra note 3, para. 1-1 (“Army leaders must understand that effective counseling helps achieve desired goals and effects, manages expectations, and improves the organization. . . . Regular counseling provides leaders with opportunities to: Demonstrate genuine interest in subordinates. . . .”).

12. Colonel Terri Erisman, Exec. Officer to The Judge Advoc. Gen., U.S. Army, Address to the 70th Graduate Course at The Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School: Emotional Intelligence (Sept. 29, 2021) [hereinafter Colonel Erisman Address].

13. Telephone Interview with Major (Promotable) Brandon Bergmann, prior Group Judge Advoc. of the 7th Group Special Forces Command (Oct. 22, 2021) [hereinafter Major Bergmann Interview].

14. U.S. Dep’t of Army, Doctrine Pub. 6-22, Army Leadership and the Profession para. 6-53 (31 July 2019) (C1, 25 Nov. 2019) [hereinafter ADP 6-22]. See also ATP 6-22.1, supra note 3, at 1-1 (“Counseling is the process used by leaders to review with a subordinate the subordinate’s demonstrated performance and potential.”).

15. An individual does not have to be rated by a leader to be counseled by that leader. However, it is best practice if an individual is going to have a formal, written counseling session with an individual, it is approved first by the rating supervisor.

16. U.S. Dep’t of Army, Reg. 623-3, Evaluation Reporting System para. 1-8e (14 June 2019) [hereinafter AR 623-3].

17. Id. para. 1-8e (emphasis added).

18. This assertion is based on the author’s professional experiences as a noncommissioned officer and company grade officer for over eighteen years in the Army Reserve, Army National Guard, and Active Component of the U.S. Army, and the Chief, International & Operational Law for U.S. Army Special Forces Command (Airborne) from 9 June 2009 to 8 June 2011 [hereinafter Professional Experiences].

19. AR 623-3, supra note 16, para. 4-11e (“In addition, no appeal may be filed solely based on the contention that the appellant was never counseled.”).

20. See ATP 6-22.1, supra note 3, para. 1-1, for a more exhaustive list of possible reasons to counsel a subordinate.

21. Kim Scott, Radical Candor: How to Get What You Want by Saying What You Mean, at xiii-xiv (2019).

22. Telephone Interview with Colonel Nathan Bankson, Staff Judge Advoc., U.S. Army Cadet Command & Fort Knox (Nov. 30, 2021) [hereinafter Colonel Bankson Interview] (“I always talk first about something about that individual. What is going on with your mom? How is the wood working going? I ask because I want to know more about the individual.”).

23. Telephone Interview with Colonel Toby Curto, Staff Judge Advoc., First Infantry Div. & Fort Riley (Nov. 12, 2021) [hereinafter Colonel Curto Interview] (“The core to being on a team is showing up to work and caring about the people around you as people, and wanting them to succeed.”).

24. Id. (“A lot of this comes from upbringing and trainings as a kid. I treat my subordinates the way I want to be treated as a friend, a brother, a professional, and a teammate.”).

25. Id. (“I want to know more about the people that work for me, because they are people that are literally right next to me for a large part of my life. I am interested in what makes them tick, what makes them unique.”).

26. NCO Creed, U.S. Army, (last visited Mar. 8, 2022) (“I know my Soldiers and I will always place their needs above my own.”).

27. Scott, supra note 21, at 9 (“[W]hen people trust you and believe you care about them, they are much more likely to . . . embrace their role on the team.”).

28. ADP 6-22, supra note 14, para. 5-7 (“The best leaders generate a sense of commitment that causes subordinates to go beyond achieving the bare minimum. Compliance to legal and ethical orders, directives, and instructions is always required. Willing and eager agreement is commitment.”).

29. Scott, supra note 21, at 10 (“Care Personally [Is the] First Dimension of Radical Candor”).

30. ADP 6-22, supra note 14, paras. 1-73, 1-75 (“The ability to influence others is a central component of leadership. . . . Influencing is persuading people do what is necessary. Influencing entails more than simply passing along orders. Through words and personal example, leaders inspire purpose, provide direction, and when required motivation.”).

31. Telephone Interview with Colonel Terri Erisman, Exec. Officer to The Judge Advoc. Gen., U.S. Army (Oct. 26, 2021) [hereinafter Colonel Erisman October 26 Interview] (“By the time you have to give a negative counseling, you should have already built up trust. This way the subordinate knows the leader is not out to get them, only there to help them.”). See also Scott, supra note 21, at 21 (“[she was] careful not to ‘personalize,’ not to make it about some essential trait. She said I ‘sounded’ stupid rather than I was stupid.” [internal italics omitted]). See also Colonel Erisman Address, supra note 12, (“When you start saying someone is like that, you are attacking them; stop that, focus on the behavior.”).

32. Jocko Willink & Leif Babin, Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win 12 (2d ed. 2017).

33. Colonel Curto Interview, supra note 23 (“Everyone is good at something, and if I have an opportunity to give projects to an individual I know will be successful at it, they will enjoy doing that work more and the product will be better.”).

34. Id. (“I believe when someone hears that a leader remembers important facts or personal facts, it shows that the leader actually cares about them as a person.”).

35. Colonel Bankson Interview, supra note 22 (“If I do not tell a subordinate what I expect, how can I expect they will complete it? Counseling helps hold both the leader and subordinate accountable for their roles, it increases transparency.”).

36. Interview with Command Sergeant Major Joshua Quinton, The Judge Advoc. Legal Ctr. & Sch. Command Sergeant Major & Noncommissioned Officers’ Academy Commandant, in Charlottesville, Va. (Nov. 18, 2021) [hereinafter Command Sergeant Major Quinton Interview] (“As a leader I owe it to my Soldiers to make it clear what “exceeds standard” means to me in their current role.”)

37. Colonel Bankson Interview, supra note 22 (“We have a pie and each of us own a piece of that pie. Counseling crystalizes what portion of the pie I expect one of my people to eat.”).

38. ATP 6-22.1, supra note 3, para. 2-45 (“Documentation serves as a ready reference for the agreed-upon plan of action and helps the leader track the subordinate’s accomplishments, personal preferences, or issues. A good record of counseling enables the leader to make proper recommendations for professional development, promotions, and evaluations.”).

39. Colonel Erisman October 26 Interview, supra note 31 (“One goal of a good counseling program is to ensure the rated Soldier is not surprised by their rating.”).

40. See source cited supra note 30.

41. ADP 6-22, supra note 14, para. 1-74.

42. Telephone Interview with Colonel Luis Rodriguez, Dir., Off. of Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion, U.S. Army Judge Advoc. Gen.’s Corps (Nov. 26, 2021) [hereinafter Colonel Rodriguez Interview] (“If a leader can get input from a Soldier on a better way to do something, this helps in two ways. First, it may be a solution the leader could not have thought of on his own. Second, the Soldier will feel empowered and more invested in the mission and mission success.”).

43. Major Bergmann Interview, supra note 13 (“I implemented several suggestions I [received during one-on-one counseling sessions]. Having that one-on-one time breaks down a barrier.”).

44. Simon Sinek, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action 95 (2009) (“Companies with a strong sense of WHY are able to inspire their employees. Those employees are more productive and innovative . . . .”).

45. ADP 6-22, supra note 14, para. 1-74.

46. Id. para. 1-76 (“Subordinates who understand why they are doing something difficult and discern the higher purpose are more likely to do the right thing when leaders are not present to direct their every action.”).

47. About the Army, U.S. Army, (last visited Mar. 8, 2022) (“Soldiers protect America’s freedoms while serving at home and abroad, and they are always prepared to defend the nation in times of need.”).

48. Command Sergeant Major Quinton Interview, supra note 36 (“I like to know my customer. If I am going to the 10th Mountain, I will find out the history of the 10th Mountain and all the awesome things they have done throughout their history.”).

49. The Army People Strategy, supra note 6, at 2.

50. The Importance of the Criminal Justice System and Today’s Professionals, Goodwin Univ. (Aug. 25, 2020),,In%20other%20words%2C%20it%20keeps%20our%20citizens%20safe.

51. ATP 6-22.1, supra note 3, para. 1-21 (“As part of professional growth counseling, the leader and subordinate may choose to develop a pathway to success with short- and long-term goals and objectives. The discussion includes opportunities for civilian or military schooling, future duty assignments, special programs, available training support resources, reenlistment options, and promotion opportunities and considerations.”).

52. Colonel Bankson Interview, supra note 22 (“If I know what someone’s long-term goals are, and I can give them jobs that help them reach those goals, it will improve their motivation. Even if the person wants to get out of the military, I can still give them work that helps set them up for success.”).

53. ADP 6-22, supra note 14, para. 6-56 (“The following generally characterize[s] mentorship: . . . [giving] advice and counsel over time to aid professional and personal growth.”).

54. “Mentoring activities” is not a term found in doctrine, but is only used in this primer to discuss some activities that, by doctrine, are done by mentors. See ADP 6-22, supra note 14, tbl.6-3.

55. Id. para. 6-56 (defining mentorship as “the voluntary developmental relationship that exists between a person of greater experience and a person of lesser experience that is characterized by mutual trust and respect.”).

56. Colonel Jim Thomas & Lieutenant Colonel Ted Thomas, Mentoring, Coaching, and Counseling: Toward a Common Understanding, Mil. Rev., July–Aug. 2015, at 50, 52.

57. ATP 6-22.1, supra note 3, para. 2-29 (“The scheduled time for counseling should also be appropriate for the complexity of the issue at hand. Generally, counseling sessions should last less than an hour.”).

58. Colonel Bankson Interview, supra note 22 (“Counseling sessions usually take about an hour, to do them right.”).

59. ATP 6-22.1, supra note 3, para. 2-29 (“When possible, leaders should formally counsel a subordinate during the duty day. Counseling after duty hours may be rushed or perceived as unfavorable.”).

60. Id. paras. 2-8 to 2-9 (“To be effective, counselors must . . . [listen] thoughtfully and deliberately to capture the nuances of the subordinate’s language.”).

61. Colonel Bankson Interview, supra note 22 (“When counseling, I ensure I am not distracted: I turn off my cell phone, I leave the phone off the hook, I have a dedicated hour to the counseling session, and I try to move away from my desk, so there are no barriers between us.”).

62. Command Sergeant Major Quinton Interview, supra note 36 (“One tip I would give to all commissioned officers evaluating noncommissioned officers, is understand the noncommissioned officers evaluation report.”). See also AR 623-3, supra note 16.

63. U.S. Dep’t of Army, Form 67-10-1, Company Grade Plate (O1–O3; WO1–CW2) Officer Evaluation Report (1 Mar. 2019). See also U.S. Dep’t of Army, Form 67-10-2, Field Grade Plate (O4–O5; CW3–CW5) Officer Evaluation Report (1 Mar. 2019).

64. See U.S. Dep’t of Army, Form 2166-9-1, NCO Evaluation Report (SGT) (1 Nov. 2015); U.S. Dep’t of Army, Form 2166-9-2, NCO Evaluation Report (SSG-1SG/MSG) (1 Nov. 2015); U.S. Dep’t of Army, Form 2166-9-3, NCO Evaluation Report (CSM/SGM) (1 Nov. 2015).

65. See U.S. Dep’t of Army, Form 67-10-1A, Officer Evaluation Report Support Form (1 Mar. 2019); U.S. Dep’t of Army, Form 2166-9-1A, NCO Evaluation Report Support Form (1 Nov. 2015).

66. Major General David J. Bligh, Staff Judge Advoc. to the Commandant of the Marine Corps, U.S. Marine Corps, Address to the 70th Graduate Course at The Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School (Nov. 3, 2021) [hereinafter Major General Bligh Address] (“For your first meeting [with a subordinate] you should allow thirty minutes to meet. Talk nothing about tasks, nothing about any work, just talk about the individual. Then they will think their leader cares about them.”).

67. Id.

68. Id. (“If you learn someone enjoys a certain football team, you can talk some about that football team and a similar issue the team is facing. Then you could segue into the harder conversation. For example, the quarterback this weekend did not seem to plan, just like our team doesn’t seem to plan.”).

69. ATP 6-22.1, supra note 3, para. 1-9, additionally recommends that a leader use this time to discuss other area-specific and some work-specific issues, for example “organizational history, structure.”

70. U.S. Dep’t of Army, Doctrine Pub. 6-0, Mission Command: Command and Control of Army Forces para. 1-14 (31 July 2019) (“Mission command is the Army’s approach to command and control that empowers subordinate decision making and decentralized execution appropriate to the situation.”).

71. ATP 6-22.1, supra note 3, para. 2-1 (“To be effective, counseling must be a shared effort. Leaders assist their subordinates in identifying strengths and weaknesses and creating plans of action.”).

72. ATP 6-22.1, supra note 3, para. 1-17 (“Performance counseling is the review of a subordinate’s duty performance during a specified period.”).

73. Colonel Erisman October 26 Interview, supra note 31.

74. Command Sergeant Major Quinton Interview, supra note 36 (“I use the Evaluation Report as the guide for all my quarterly counseling sessions.”).

75. Colonel Bankson Interview, supra note 22 (“I always send a draft evaluation report. I will never send a completed evaluation report and ask them to sign. I send a draft report so we can have a discussion about what I wrote before the rated Soldier is asked to sign.”).

76. Id.

77. ATP 6-22.1, supra note 3, para. 1-5 (“Event-oriented counseling involves a specific event or situation. It may precede events such as participating in promotion boards . . . .”).

78. Command Sergeant Major Quinton Interview, supra note 36 (responding to the question, “If you have to convince somebody who does not think counseling is worth their time as a leader what would you tell them?”).

79. Danielle DeSimone, Military Suicide Rates Are at an All-Time High; Here’s How We’re Trying to Help (Sept. 1, 2021), (“Suicide rates among active-duty military members are currently at an all-time high since record-keeping began after 9/11 and have been increasing over the past five years at an alarmingly steady pace.”).

80. ATP 6-22.1, supra note 3, para. 1-7 (“Leaders should always counsel subordinates who do not meet the standard.”)

81. This assertion is based on the author’s recent professional experiences as the senior trial counsel for U.S. Army Cadet Command from 15 July 2019 to 15 July 2021.

82. Colonel Erisman October 26 Interview, supra note 31 (“By the time you have to give a negative counseling, you should have already built up trust. This way the subordinate knows the leader is not out to get them, only there to help them.”).

83. Id. (“Event-oriented counseling should look at the view of development, ‘I want to address this issue to help make you better, to ensure you understand how this effects your credibility.’”).

84. ATP 6-22.1, supra note 3, para. 1-7 (“Address and explain the specific behavior or action-do not address the subordinate’s character.”).

85. Telephone Interview with Colonel Terri Erisman, Exec. Officer to The Judge Advoc. Gen., U.S. Army (Nov. 19, 2021) (“The best way I found to address an issue is to first try to ask questions and get the subordinate to identify the issue. Then ask questions to come up with ways to avoid these issues in the future.”).

86. Id.