“I’m not your friend” — Understanding the XO-PL Relationship
When my fellow platoon leaders and I first met our Company Executive Officer, he immediately told us, “I’m not your friend, and I’m not here to answer your stupid questions.”
Of course, our initial reaction was, “Well, we don’t want you as our friend anyway! Jerk!” Months later, I think I’m starting to understand the oftentimes strange relationship that platoon leaders have with their XOs. I now believe that the XO-PL relationship is one of the more underrated, misunderstood mentor-mentee opportunities in the Army.
Despite the moniker as “second-in-command,” Company Executive Officers hardly command anything; rather, their primary responsibilities involve running the administrative, maintenance, and supply operations for their Companies. It’s an oftentimes thankless job, performed in a world of checklists and bureaucracy that exists entirely in support of the Company Commander.
This explains why many view platoon leader mentorship as residing exclusively in the commander’s lane. It’s easy for platoon leaders to bypass the paper-pushing XO (whose identical rank further encourages this mentality) to get to the commander’s nuggets of wisdom; however, by doing this, we impede our own leadership development. Disproportionately attributing greater weight to the CO’s counsel ironically neglects the XO’s hard-earned, more recently acquired knowledge – knowledge that can help platoon leaders do better.
On a macro level, this speaks to our attitudes about mentorship in general. For many junior officers, the presumption is that mentorship takes place in the form of a pre-scheduled sermon from the field grade in their office, note-taking material in one hand, ADP 6-22 in the other. Call me a contrarian, but I’ve come to relish the opposite kind of mentoring, the kind that is borne of honest mistakes and subsequent admonishment. It’s refreshing, it’s readily available, and importantly, it’s effective.
It took me a while to understand this, mostly because initially, the majority of my interactions with my XO consisted of him, red-faced, demanding to know why I failed to do something correctly. He truly was not my friend during the first couple of months I had my platoon. I now realize that it’s somewhat designed to be that way; that is, the best way to learn is to be held accountable for your failures by someone who’s been there (and is willing to let you grow).
It’s easy to forget that the person chastising you was once in your shoes. That’s precisely why it should be them doing it – at some point in the recent past, they likely suffered the full consequences of the mistakes they’re preventing you from making. It’s not that they relish your failure, it’s that they know what standard they can reasonably hold you to.
This leads to an important caveat: not every XO is suited to be a mentor. It’s a small population, but some take the “second-in-command” title quite literally (and not in a good way). An even smaller population of XOs may believe themselves to be in direct OER competition with their PLs. It’s unfortunate, but I think these instances are rare. Most XOs want to mentor their PLs I think. That said, not every PL/XO relationship is as good as it could be. Peer mentoring can be tough, but not impossible. Below are some things I’ve learned that I think can help set the stage for an effective XO/PL mentoring relationship – even with the unfriendliest of XOs.
1. Check your ego.
Simply put, the experience a Company XO has trumps all the BOLC knowledge a new platoon leader brings to the table. While this seems obvious, ambition and eagerness to perform are powerful allies of hubris. Your ego can be your worst enemy – fragile and self-preserving, it can canalize your thought to blur the lines between independent thought and outright blockheadedness.
Mentorship, as with all relationships, is a vulnerable process. It’s never fun to be wrong, even when there’s some good learning to be had. Rest assured that your shortcomings are expected, so there’s no need to pretend to be perfect. Even if your XO isn’t the most empathetic, you control the grace and humility with which you learn the job.
There’s a reason our Army’s top leadership places such an emphasis on humility. The sabotage of our individual growth as leaders in the preservation of our egos is a special kind of asininity. I have my XO to thank for providing me with enough content to study and understand this.
2. Look and listen.
I mentioned earlier that the world in which the XO is operating seems like a foreign land of admin, supply, and logistics. It’s true, and if you can speak the language, your understanding of how your platoon nests into the overall mission will increase greatly.
Self-absorption is a universal symptom of newly-acquired platoon leadership, and understandably so. There’s property to sign for, soldiers’ names to memorize, and CONOPs to be written. What matters is that as soon as possible, you begin to develop an understanding of the operational picture. Your platoon is one of several that comprise a company, and the company’s logistical facilitation of its platoons’ operations is likely a greater endeavor than your own as a PL.
The faster you and your peers collectively understand this, the smoother your platoon leadership will run. Closely observing the XO to understand his/her procedures, SOPs, and battle rhythms will not only grant insight into your role as a PL but also improve your working relationship with the company command team.
For many of you, it’s likely that just as you begin to feel confident as a PL, you’ll be asked to step up as an XO yourself. This is why it’s important to contextualize as early as possible the career trajectory that you’ve embarked on.
There will always be fresh lieutenants waiting for a platoon, and there will always be eager captains awaiting command. Consider the inglorious XO stint as the only lieutenant position that is truly not expendable or easily filled. Platoon leadership is the first litmus test of an officer’s suitability to command, and only those who have passed will become XOs. This means that all XOs have demonstrated their fitness to lead and can now serve in a singularly essential capacity: to support a line company’s operations prior to their own promotion to captain.
This is the irony of the Myth of the Paper-pushing XO. The odds are that they served well as platoon leaders, and their battalion commanders selected them for their current positions. It makes more sense to accept mentorship from someone of the same rank when their very position validates that their trial-by-fire was a success.
Anyway, if I asked my XO today if we were friends, he’d probably scoff and tell me to get out of his office. What goes unspoken are the moments when I’ve burst into his office with a stupid question that he DID answer, the LOGPAC chow runs in the freezing rain, the frantic training meeting slide updates minutes before the commander walked through the door, etc. They do say shared suffering develops camaraderie, though I doubt he’d ever admit it.
To all soon-to-be platoon leaders, I’m excited for you to discover all the small ways you’ll encounter some personal development. I think that looking to your future XO is a good place to start. They might not be your friend, they might not be there to answer your stupid questions, but they might very well end up being a valuable, otherwise overlooked mentor for you.
If you’d like to learn more mentoring – specifically how to be a good protégé, check out this video. You can also check out one of our short cases on XO leadership of peers.
Joo Chung is a Rifle Platoon Leader stationed at Fort Carson, CO. He graduated from USMA with a dual degree in English and Economics. His academic interests include 20th-century American literature, 19th-century Russian literature, and World War II. In his spare time, he enjoys trail running and cooking, and he dabbles in woodworking and freelance video production.
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