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Leadership & Feedback in & out of the Army - Shark Attack!

Written by Ryan Smeltz


Posted on January 03 2020

The year is 2005. This is the day we had what was referred to ask our shark attack. We came from in processing at the 43rd Adjutant Battalion on cattle trailers and buses. Once we arrived outside our unit, Drill Sergeants entered and began screaming, “Get off the bus!” Just like cattle, we pushed and shoved until we were outside. 

This was a setup. As soon as we were outside, there were more Drill Sergeants ready to yell at us again. “Put your face in your bag!” “Stand over here!” “What’s so funny!?” We were tripping over each other. Some people were crying. I found my spot and did my best to obey every order to the letter.

Little did we realize, this was our first formation. They had us drop our bags by our feet. The Senior Drill Sergeant took his place in front of all of us and gave a welcome speech. After this, we were yelled at to go upstairs where we were greeted by our battle buddies who arrived before us. We later found out that hold under and hold overs were a very real thing. 

I was 18 years old and it was my first day at my basic training unit. This is what they call Day Zero. I was nervous. I still didn’t really know what to expect. There seemed to be Drill Sergeants everywhere. I was afraid to breathe wrong. 

See, I was raised when an adult speaks, you listen. Mix that with my very limited knowledge of the military and you get one very frightened kid. Up until day zero, if the Drill Sergeants said sit, I sat. If they said put your face in your bag, I tried to bury my face in my bag. It took me quite some time to realize Drill Sergeants have a human side to them and they’re not perfect. Until then, if they asked me to jump, I asked how high on the way up.

Counseling Statements

The first and most important thing I want to talk about is counseling statements. One of the first things we do when someone joins the Army is to give them a reception and integration counseling statement, most commonly referred to as an initial counseling. Though most of us who enlisted had no idea what it was when we signed it, this first counseling statement set the expectations and clarify the standards for our entire career. Little did we know, our Drill Sergeants were demonstrating one of the first things a leader must do with their Soldiers. This initial counseling statement would set the tone for a Soldier during their time under the leadership of the person giving the counseling session.

The Feedback Effect

The correlation between the Army’s counseling sessions and civilian life is feedback. I have worked way too many jobs since I have been out and noticed three primary forms of feedback in the civilian workforce. Though I agree some feedback is better than no feedback, there is definitely a right way and a wrong way to go about it. 

Feedback number one is built-in. This is a feedback process that was designed, developed, and implemented by upper management. Built-in feedback (BIF) will always be less personal and usually make upper management feel it is being successful while the only employees who will gain anything from it will be those who take it seriously. That statement applies both to the subordinate receiving the feedback and the issuing supervisor. A good example of this is the monthly review a big box store employee receives. It is most likely an automated form based on their recorded performance on the computer systems throughout the store.

Feedback number two is unintentional. The most common place for this feedback to appear is usually a brand new company with an owner who has not yet realized they’re in a leadership position. A brand new small business will have unintentional feedback (UIF). The most dangerous thing about UIF is that it is feedback that is ill-prepared and usually not very well delivered or received. A good example of this is when the apprentice walks through the mud before heading into a customer’s house and the technician yells at him sarcastically. Feedback nonetheless, but still not as effective. This type of feedback can also be counterproductive.

The last type of feedback and the most effective is planned and intentional. This type of feedback is when the leader determines the circumstances surrounding the feedback, creates, develops, and implements a plan to communicate that feedback. This can include the subordinate telling the leader they would like some feedback and scheduling a session on the calendar. It could be the occurrence of a specific event, no matter good or bad. The best and most important time to provide feedback is immediate. Just like in the Army.

At first glance, Army counselings seem like BIF however, they are not. The reason they are not built-in is that the form is the only part which is dictated by the Department of the Army (DA Form 4856). The method is usually learned and adjusted by each leader. Though there are required deadlines for these counselings to be finished and submitted for review by a senior leader, the specific details are up to the leader and the Soldier.

The reason feedback is so important immediately is because it sets the tone for the entire journey. If I joined the Army and they never told me I had to do physical training, be on time, and no physically assault my battle buddies (Army for friends), I might have slept in and beat the crap out of everybody. It was all in that initial counseling statement. That doesn’t mean when you hire someone you have to put everything under the sun into an employee handbook. That just means if you have expectations of someone you’re going to pay or lead then you should at least give them a heads up. In writing. That they sign.

“But Ryan, I can’t do that. I don’t even know how to turn on a computer.” Good. Handwriting has all but expired anyway. Bring it back. “But Ryan, I don’t write much gooder and me and spelling and grammar ain’t friends!” Good. You can speech-to-text with almost any device these days and they have built-in spelling and grammar check. “But Ryan, I don’t have time to write an employee handbook!” Besides the fact you’re probably not ready for employees, you can hire someone to do that exact thing for you! Just make sure you’re the one to sit down with your immediate subordinates. Leaders create leaders who make more leaders. If you’re a point and shoot kinda person, then stop reading.



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