Nobody seems to care about the XO

Over the past couple of months, there have been a few articles on things a good Platoon Leader (PL) should do, or things people wish they did when they were a PL (69 TTPs for Successful Infantry Platoon LeadersWhat I Wish I Knew: Cadet to Lieutenant in Afghanistan). These articles are passed around for future and current PLs to digest. People have been writing these tips and lists for years.

The whole Platoon Leader thing is strange. Future officers – especially infantry officers – spend years thinking about what they’ll do when they finally get there and become a PL. They read memoir after memoir (after memoir after memoir). They watch movies and television shows about it. They are reminded  – ad nauseam – about how it will be the best time they will ever have in the Army, a dismal thought, thinking you might top out when you begin. All that time and energy spent fantasizing about that first job, a drop in the bucket of an Army career.

From the enlisted perspective, the Platoon Leader signs the hand receipt and a good platoon should be able to function without a Platoon Leader altogether. And as a very wise senior officer reminded me before I commissioned, “the Army doesn’t need platoon leaders – it needs field grade officers – the platoon will be fine with or without you, you are there to learn.”

And after that platoon time ends? Then what?

Some PLs get ‘speciality’ platoons (scouts or mortars), some move on to staff functions, others become Aides to Generals. And some PLs become Executive Officers, ‘XOs,’ second in command to the Company Commander. It’s an important job that pretty much no one spends any amount of time thinking about. I’m not sure anyone has ever written a memoir about their wartime service as an XO.

It’s a strange transition, PL to XO. You’re still a First Lieutenant (usually), like most of your fellow Platoon Leaders, so you don’t ‘outrank’ them, but there is no question that you are ‘over them’ in terms of where you stand in the chain of command. The PLs don’t call the XO ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ and since they are likely the same rank, no salutes are exchanged. If the unit’s officers are tight, it is likely that the XO and the PLs already know each other pretty well and might even hang out with one another on the weekends.

Since there are no good resources to go to, no memoirs or movies that glamorize the role of the XO, the XO is very much defined by the Company Commander and First Sergeant. Sure, there are things that most XOs take care of – maintenance, coordinating chow and training, for example – but these things are often also attended to by the Commander and First Sergeant. The lines blur.

Specifically interesting to me is the relationship between the XO and the Platoon Leaders. Is it the XO’s role to ‘wrangle’ the Platoon Leaders and keep them in line with the Commander’s intent, or is that outside of his lane? Should the XO serve as a ‘sounding board’ for the Platoon Leader’s gripes? Should the XO provide mentorship to those PLs or leave that to the Commander? How is the XO supposed to manage the social relationship with the Platoon Leaders now that he is “second in command?” Can he still go get drinks with them after work, or is that now unprofessional?

Of course, it is easy to say “the commander should make clear his expectations of his XO in his initial counseling,” but the reality is that these transitions are usually fluid and fast. They’re often over before they start. When a Platoon Leader steps in front of the platoon and gives “the speech,” he’s thought and trained about that moment and the coming moments for years. The poor XO gets a text message late on a Friday night that says “ur new XO of B CO starting monday good job.”

What I’m saying is I think we’ve reached max capacity on Platoon Leader articles. I can sum all of them up with the below quote, anyway:

Be really good at everything at all times and you’ll be fine.

I’d really like to see an article titled “69 Tip and Tricks to be a Successful Executive Officer.” I welcome your comments.

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