What does it mean to be “second-in-command”?
The role of an executive officer has manifold dimensions. Some of them, like resourcing training, are easier to grasp than others, like property divestment. The purpose of this article is to discuss the challenges of what I will contend is the most challenging dimension of the role: serving as second-in-command. To be clear, serving as second-in-command is not as simple as assuming command in the event that the Commander dies or takes leave. Truly being second-in-command involves serving as the Commander’s trusted advisor, acting as a liaison to higher and adjacent units, earning the respect of the platoon leaders so that the tasks you need them to complete are executed with buy-in instead of resistance, and winning the trust of the noncommissioned officers in the company so that they help both execute and enforce what you need to happen. So, what then is difficult about truly being second-in-command?
Not many will view you as ‘2IC’
The challenge, at its core, is that few people in the company, with the exception of the Commander, will genuinely view you as second-in-command. Sure, most understand that the XO is first up in the succession of command, but outside of that, many perceive the role to be purely a staff job instead of a leadership position. For example, another CJO Leadership Fellow, Joo Chung , wrote the following in an article about the PL-XO relationship:
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.
Now, Chung (2021) is certainly right about an XO’s primary responsibilities, but he presents symptoms of myopia when he opines that the job exists “entirely in support of the Commander.” An XO sustains the company and not just the Commander. Moreover, just as a good platoon leader will grapple with more than just their purported primary responsibilities of CONOPs and PT plans, a good XO also influences company culture, assists with maneuver, and takes care of Soldiers.
Nonetheless, the misperception of the XO’s role often manifests in a PL’s resentment of the XO either enforcing a deadline or initiating a layout of company equipment. This resentment may percolate up in the form of resistant body language or statements like, “It’s not your job to make this happen.” Some may view this resistance as a time when the XO ought to get the Commander involved in order to clarify how things ought to work with that PL. I disagree. That course of action would both make the XO appear invertebrate and it would reinforce the idea that the role is only “bureaucratic.” Of course, platoon leaders ought to provide candid feedback to the XO, but it is the XO’s responsibility to learn the idiosyncrasies of the individual platoon leaders so that he or she can best influence them toward mission accomplishment. Instead of depending on the Commander’s authority, a good XO ought to firmly explain why something needs to happen in a way that’s individualized to that specific PL. This is no easy task, and it will most likely take some major adjustments from the way the XO operated as a PL. XOs have neither the power to punish nor the power to reward, and consequently, they must rely on their reputation of competence and emotional intelligence amongst their lieutenant peers to accomplish tasks efficiently.
You might be thinking, why ought the XO do this? For his or her own development before they are a Commander? For a ‘top block OER?’ The bottom line is that when the PLs trust and respect the XO, the company becomes a more effective fighting unit. There will be situations in either training or a deployment where the Company Commander is corresponding with a higher HQ and in a rush, the XO will need to inform a PL that they need to maneuver from position X to position Y. This will happen in a timely fashion, without hesitation, if and only if the XO has earned the respect and trust of the platoon leaders.
The CO-XO relationship
Any worthwhile synthesis of what it means to be second-in-command must include a discussion regarding the relationship the XO has with who is actually in command. I will center this discussion around the operations process to illustrate what the XO does outside of the more monotonous tasks that people usually see. Army Doctrine Publication 5-0 reads:
Commanders use the operations process to drive the conceptual and detailed planning necessary to understand their [operational environment]; visualize and describe the operation’s end state and operational approach; make and articulate decisions; and direct, lead, and assess operations as shown in figure 1-1. (p. 1-4)
Essentially, a good XO ought to focus on helping the Commander understand, visualize, and describe variables in the OE quickly and effectively. Prima facie, one may think that the XO is just there to make the Commander’s life easier. This is missing the forest for the trees. The aim of helping the Commander understand, visualize, and describe is to shed time in the decision-making process in order to allow for longer parallel planning and refinement processes. If done effectively, doing so will also free up cognitive space for the Commander to think ahead, take care of Soldiers, and maintain good order and discipline in the unit.
So what does this look like in practice? In the field, the XO should focus on variables affecting sustainment and the command post, and then if time permits, he or she can assist with intelligence preparation of the battlefield and even the maneuver plan. In garrison, the XO should strive to generate options for how the Commander can achieve their desired end state with well-resourced training scenarios. Moreover, the XO ought to take extreme ownership over all things related to maintenance and property so that the Commander can spend more time planning LPDs, talking to Soldiers, and handling those inevitably urgent finance actions. It follows, then, that serving as second-in-command entails significant leadership responsibilities. These responsibilities just happen to be ‘behind-the-scenes.’
In the spirit of reciprocity and generosity, a good Commander will start a lot of sentences with, “When you’re a Commander, make sure you do _____.” In addition, the Commander and First Sergeant should pull the XO into as many conversations as possible in order to demonstrate how they deliberate about corresponding with higher headquarters, disciplinary proceedings, manning decisions, serious incidents, and personality conflicts between senior leaders in the company. Altogether, these CO-XO conversations will gradually develop the XO into someone who can both navigate tougher leadership issues and speak on behalf of the company maturely when warranted. The CO-XO relationship, handled well, will bring synergy to the company’s processes and its Soldiers.
Lessons from the private sector
“Asking the question, “What makes a great COO?” is akin to asking “What makes a great candidate for U.S. vice president?” It all depends on the first name on the ticket—the CEO” (Bennett & Miles, 2006).
After reviewing some literature about seconds-in-command in the private sector, it became clear that one of the key similarities between the CEO-COO and CO-XO relationships is that the function of the second-in-command is entirely dependent on the personality, talents, and preferences of the first-in-command. This comparison exists with a caveat. At the company level, I would add that the First Sergeant’s characteristics are also a large determinant of the XO’s role in the company. This may not seem like a revelation, but at the very least, it defangs the notion that the XO’s role is simply ‘bureaucratic.’ The XO’s role is dynamic, and it is shaped by the interplay of the individuals who fill the roles in the company ‘top three.’
The maintenance process provides timely examples of how the personalities and preferences of the Commander delimit the XO’s role in the company. In the event of a mission that requires a vehicle with a deadlining fault, is the XO authorized to ‘circle X’ the vehicle for limited operation on the Commander’s behalf based on general risk assumption and mitigation guidance, or is the XO not authorized to ‘circle X’ anything at all? One could surely argue that the Commander’s trust in the XO would be the largest factor in whether the answer is the former or the latter. However, that trust in the XO may be something that is given in the beginning of the XO’s tenure, or it may have to be earned after some time on the job. In either case, the Commander’s personality is a significant factor.
On the topic of the XO-1SG relationship, Appendix I of Army Techniques Publication 3-21.10 (2018) distinguishes the XO as the ‘primary sustainment planner’ and the 1SG as the ‘primary sustainment operator’ of the company. I will assert, however, that the planner-operator conception does not fully capture how a company grapples with both the exigencies of mission preparation and the initiation of movement. In actuality, the XO and First Sergeant should aspire to complement each other’s talents and experiences to ensure the success of the company’s sustainment activities, just as COOs should complement the traits of their CEO (Bennett & Miles, 2006). When a critical piece of equipment becomes non-mission capable or when inclement weather renders a desired route untenable, the situation necessitates the mental agility of both the XO and 1SG to reformulate plans for transportation, vehicle recovery, and mass casualty evacuation. Moreover, pre-combat checks and inspections are often so elaborate, especially in a vehicular unit, that it would be a disservice to the unit to leave only to the XO or 1SG. Accordingly, serving as second-in-command should not be reduced to merely being a Commander’s assistant. Serving as the second-in-command is a dynamic and human enterprise that involves aiming to achieve resonance with the individuals who happen to be the Commander and First Sergeant.
The aim of this article is not only to meditate on the meaning of what it means to be second-in-command, it is also to shed light on the idea that the XO endeavor is just as much about leader development as it is about logistics and administration. To those weary of the position, embrace it! I have learned more about myself and leadership as an XO than I did as a PL. I will forever be grateful for the journey.
If you’re interested in an LPD on the XO leadership of peers, you can watch one of our case studies on the topic here.
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CPT Christian Nattiel is a Rhodes Scholar and currently serves as the Weapons Company Executive Officer in 1-21 IN, 2nd IBCT, 25th ID at Schofield Barracks, Hawaii. He is a Center for Junior Officers Leadership Fellow.
Bennett, N., & Miles, S. A. (2006, May). Second in command: The misunderstood role of the chief operating officer. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved October 2, 2021, from https://hbr.org/2006/05/second-in-command-the-misunderstood-role-of-the-chief-operating-officer.
Chung, J. (2021, August 4). “I’m not your friend” – understanding the XO-PL relationship. The Center for Junior Officers. Retrieved October 2, 2021, from https://juniorofficer.army.mil/im-not-your-friend/.
U.S. Department of the Army. (2018). Infantry rifle company: Army techniques publication 3-21.10. Retrieved October 10, 2021, from https://armypubs.army.mil/epubs/DR_pubs/DR_a/pdf/web/ARN8519_ATP%203-21×10%20Final%20Web.pdf.
U.S. Department of the Army. (2019). The Operations Process: Army doctrine publication 5-0. Retrieved October 2, 2021, from https://armypubs.army.mil/epubs/DR_pubs/DR_a/ARN18126-ADP_5-0-000-WEB-3.pdf.