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Case Study: The Function of an Army Executive Officer at the Company and Battalion Levels

Above: 5-6 INF,  2-12 CAV,  HHC 1 BDE 1 CAV DIV, 1-46 INF,  2-6 INF

Leadership Perspectives on the Function of an Army  Company and Battalion Executive Officer

Article by Tom Rozman

The approaches used by different armies and within armies to position an officer to best be able to assist the commander and be prepared to assume command as necessary at company and battalion level vary, sometimes dramatically from each other.  The variances occur in position title and extend to the division of duties between the assigned commander and the organization’s next senior officer.   In some cases the second ranking officer may be oriented on administration and logistics only while in other situations two commanders are assigned with one being  senior.

A discussion and revisiting of the leadership function as it may apply with the second senior officer in companies and battalions may be of some value from a leadership vantage point.  Companies tend to be substantial organizations of 100-200 soldiers.  Battalions are even more significant ranging from 300-1,000 or more soldiers.  This organizational construct is not restricted to armies.  Marine corps or infantry on the U.S. Marine Corps or similar naval infantry models tend to have officers that also operate as a second senior officer or junior commander in comparable levels of formation.

To note, the position title in some cases may be fairly clear and straight forward, i.e., deputy commander or second-in-command.  In other cases the position title may not be that clear in indicating the deputy command relationship, the position title “executive officer” used in the U.S. Army being an example.  It is a title seeming to emphasize an administrative staff support role concentrated on coordinating the staff functions and not oriented on any “command” related activity or authority.

As well, the role and function of the second senior officer may vary from army to army.  It may arch over a range of army proscribed functions or its role may prove a a very free form approach allowed to the assigned commander to determine the second senior officer’s role and duties in the formation.  In the armies ranging toward the latter end of the spectrum, an officer’s entry into the position can be particularly challenging if not provided with a fairly clear statement of concept for the position from the commander.  This clarity or lack there of in the position related guidance provided by the commander may then directly affect the “leadership’ functionality of the officer assigned to the position.

Fortunately from personal experience, commanders tended toward providing the executive officer a good initial statement of concept of function and outline of duties that would evolve and mature as both officers proceeded through the business of the unit’s operational schedule over what usually would be a period of 12-18 months.  This typically allowed for effective leadership from the executive officer position in the areas that officer was responsible for and for the entire unit when required as an acting commander.

This vignette addresses some personal perspectives on the manner the position worked or didn’t work leadership-wise formed by 30 months experience in three combat formation companies of the Army and two combat battalions. The company level experience included two months as the executive officer of Headquarter and Headquarters Company, 5th Battalion, 6th Infantry (Mechanized), 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division, six months as the executive officer of Company C, 2nd Battalion, 12th Cavalry (a mechanized infantry battalion), 1st Brigade (a divisional armored brigade), 1st Cavalry Division, and five months as the executive officer of Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division.  All three companies were based at Fort Hood, Texas.

Battalion level experience included ten months as the executive officer and two months as the acting commander of 1st Battalion (Mechanized), 46th Infantry and six months as the executive officer of 2nd Battalion, 6th Infantry (Mechanized}.   Both battalions were forward deployed as units of the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, a three tank and one mechanized infantry battalion divisional brigade then garrisoned at Erlangen, West Germany.

The mechanized infantry battalion headquarters company experienced as a company executive officer was at the time an organization of some 150-170 officers and soldiers.  It included the battalion headquarters, the command group and its staff, its S-1 (personnel), S-2 (intelligence), S-3 (plans, operations and training), S-4 (supply and logistics) and special staff sections.   The company had a small company headquarters with administrative, supply and arms room, vehicle maintenance, communications, nuclear, biological and chemical sections, and the battalion communications, medical, maintenance, and supply platoons.  The company had recently reorganized from a much larger organization that had also had under command the anti-tank, heavy mortar, and scout platoons.   The latter units had been reorganized into a separate combat support company.

Experience in the executive officer position in this case was brief at just two months.  The situation was a function of the time with much personnel rotation occurring in the army’s units as the Army began the process of disengaging from its Viet Nam operations and transition from a national service manned force to a volunteer force.

The headquarters company executive officer in this case was structured as a coordinator of the company’s administrative operations: its training, communications, maintenance, supply, nuclear, biological and chemical functions.  The officer was a fairly junior lieutenant of eight months commissioned service up to that point, service being primarily on temporary duty at the Infantry School’s Infantry Officer Basic Course, and Parachute and Ranger School.   In the arrangement that presented, the executive officer did increasingly exercise leadership over the these company areas to include commanding a provisional infantry (riot control) platoon formed from company personnel assets and placed under the operational control of the battalion’s Company C.

The officer had some initial guidance in assuming duties and over the brief period of serving in the role began to develop capability as the officer overseeing and leading these areas.   However, outside a catastrophic operational situation, the officer during the time of the assignment was too junior and new to the company to exercise leadership beyond the administrative officer construct.  If the company commander had been unable to continue in his duties, the battalion commander would likely have reassigned a more senior experienced lieutenant from elsewhere in the company or battalion.

Noting the complexities of a mechanized battalion headquarters company and one consolidating a reorganization, my experience in this case argued for a more senior officer being assigned to such duties.  Given the circumstances, such an officer would have been thoroughly on top of the administrative supporting elements of the company.   This officer should also have been oriented and prepared to assume the acting commander role of the company at any moment given the situation at the time.

The personal experience of this company, though short, underscored the importance of the company’s second officer being able to assume a major role and leadership of the company’s administrative and support.  In my view, this positioning was ideal to assumption of command in an acting capacity if required.

I was reassigned from the preceding assignment to lead a mechanized platoon.  After nine months I was again reassigned to the position of executive officer, this time for Company C, 1st Battalion, 12th Cavalry, a mechanized infantry company.

This assignment lasted six months during which time the company engaged in increased physical conditioning, individual and tactical training and towards the goal of bringing all of its systems and elements to the highest readiness level possible under the conditions that existed.  The company would also support operations to remove unexploded ammunition from the huge Fort Hood gunnery range impact area to support the several week force-on-force exercise Gallant Hand, an exercise that would pit the reorganized 1st Cavalry Tri-Capability Division against the 2nd Armored Division.  The company was a subordinate maneuver unit of the 1st Cavalry Division.

The company commander on my welcome interview was clear.  I would assume control of all administrative, maintenance, supply and other company support functions and elements. There were several immediate issues the company commander wanted prioritized such as the rebuilding of the maintenance section’s “Common 1” and “Common 2” tool sets.  The commander also indicated that he wanted me to orient on assuming command in the event he was unable to be able to command.  In the event, this assumption of command of the deployed company would occur during a phase of the range clearing operations.

The commander clearly outlined a role for the executive officer in his initial guidance that defined the position as the second in command with focus on the company’s support establishment.   An excellent and effective relationship formed between commander and executive officer.  The executive officer position was optimized and its incumbent was able to apply effective leadership over the support areas and as acting commander when mission and situation warranted.  The company was at the time a very strong unit of the battalion.

I was reassigned again to assume duties as the 1st Cavalry Division’s 1st Brigade’s Headquarters Company as the replacement executive officer.  This was an armored brigade of one mechanized and two tank (armored) battalions.  The company commander in his welcoming interview echoed the Company C commander’s outline of concept regarding the executive officer position.  The executive officer would assume control over all major support functions of the company, such as administration, maintenance, nuclear, biological and chemical, supply and arms room.  As well, the executive officer would function as the acting commander in the commander’s absence.

Again, as with the battalion headquarters company, the in this case brigade headquarters, its command group, S-1, S-2, S-3, S-4 and special staff sections support required full attention.  The brigade commander’s unauthorized 2 ½ ton truck van used for field deployments, a vehicle no longer in the active Army inventory, added to the support challenge.

An excellent relationship quickly formed between the company commander and the new executive officer.  Unexpectedly, the company commander was reassigned after barely a month.  The new company commander, based on limited prior experience in armored units, came to rely on the new but now experienced executive officer, now a 1st lieutenant with over two years of commissioned service.  The position operated along the lines employed in company C and as envisioned by the departed headquarters commander.  The executive officer was the officer over all administrative and support operations and stood ready and prepared to assume command of the company as necessary.  The commander and executive officer forged an effective command and control team for the company.

Five months later the executive officer was reassigned to 2nd Infantry Division in Korea. He served as an infantry platoon leader and assistant division commander aide-de-camp.  On return to the Continental U.S. he would be assigned to a separate mechanized  infantry brigade where he would serve on battalion staffs in the S-1 and S-3 offices, as a detachment officer-in-charge, a mechanized company commander and a brigade assistant S-3.

Graduate school would follow then several years as the plans, operations and training officer of a reserve officer training corps university instructor group and assistant professor for courses taught to senior cadets who were primarily academic juniors.  The U.S. Army Staff College followed and on graduation, assignment followed to 1st Battalion (Mechanized), 46th Infantry in Erlangen, Germany as the battalion executive officer.

The battalion had an immensely busy program with multiple multi week gunneries, field validations and general defense position command post and maneuver exercises.  Over the next 18 months, The battalion would deploy six times to Grafenwoehr, Hohenfels or Wildflecken major U. S. Army Europe training areas and three times with command and control elements to its general defense position area on the Czech Border.

Additionally the battalion was starting it reorganization program to transition from a five company battalion to become a six company battalion.  It was also preparing to replace its M-113 Armored Personnel Carriers with the M-2 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle.  The battalion also pursued a general Defense Position partnership with two Bundesweher battalions that had U.S. Army Europe, 7th Army and VII Corps focus, the U.S. and German battalions having position on the their respective U.S. and German corps boundaries on the General Defense Position.  It was an aggressive partnership.  The battalion was a very busy unit.

The commander in the new executive officer’s welcome interview outlined his concept.  The executive officer would lead and orchestrate the battalion staff and its support elements to include all S-3 assets less the S-3 himself who would respond directly to the commander.  All maneuver and combat support elements would be directly under the commander.  As well, the executive officer was to prepare to assume command of the battalion as necessary.

The latter situation became real several months after the executive officer joined the battalion.  The commander, with the S-3 and two other soldiers, deployed several hundred miles to the west to the Netherlands for REFORGER ’83 and the following ABLE ARCHER exercise.  The executive officer became the battalion’s active commander for 64 days.   The executive officer in the event was an effective commander.

The departure of the battalion commander after 12 months concluded a highly effective command and control relationship where the executive officer position proved highly effective over that 12 months.  Much of this effectiveness was due to the commander’s clear statement of his concept for the position, his ability to delegate to the executive officer and the executive officer’s willingness to assume authority and responsibility and apply the necessary leadership to sustain effective support operations and, when required, command of the battalion.

At the time of the battalion commander’s departure, the reorganized battalion redesignated as the 2nd Battalion, 6th Infantry (Mechanized).  The new commander outlined a similar program to that of the previous commander but was not as clear.

In the first several weeks of the new commander’s tenure, the executive officer precipitated a “meeting of the minds” that put the relationship between the two officers on the right track for the next almost six months.  The demanding schedule experienced by the predecessor battalion continued with continuing reorganization, General Defense Position work, partnership battalion work and deployments to the major training areas.  A very effective relationship developed between the commander and the executive officer.

The executive officer was reassigned to the Division’s G-3 office to engage in the division level hard work of the ongoing modernization of the division to accept its M-1 Abrams Tanks and M-2 Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles.  This work was made all the more difficult as a period of Congressionally mandated fiscal constraint began.

From the preceding experience my sense is that the executive officer at company and battalion is most effective in a leadership sense when the commander makes a clear statement of what he expects of the position.  The assignment of all administrative and support operations and supervision of the staff with a requirement to be prepared to assume command seemed to be the best approach to shaping the position to its most effective extent by both officers.

From all five experiences one of the most significant “take aways” is that the commander must be comfortable with the delegation of duties to the executive officer/second in command.  As well, the executive officer must be prepared to assume the demands of the primary role and the role of commander subject to activation based on situation.  This approach will allow the executive officer to be an effective leader and provide the necessary leadership needed by the company and the battalion and most critically, sustained effective mission support.

3 Comments

  • Mitchell MacLeod 13139

    June 18, 2019 at 6:19 pm

    “From the preceding experience my sense is that the executive officer at company and battalion is most effective in a leadership sense when the commander makes a clear statement of what he expects of the position”.
    Interesting statement from my perspective and applicable for any military position. I can remember at least three staff jobs where I received absolutely no direction from my military chain of command. Nor were there any written terms of reference as to what my duties were supposed to be. I think at least one of those commanders had not the faintest clue himself; a dinosaur in the last years of his career who refused to learn to use a computer!! I was in all three positions for less than a year each and was not replaced in two of them. Nor was there anyone filling two of three jobs when I arrived that I could have gleaned information off of. Such was disruption of the “Decade of Darkness”…more officers than they had viable positions for.

  • Tom Rozman

    June 19, 2019 at 8:55 am

    Your point about the commander providing clear direction is key to effectiveness of the position. This should not be confused with any form of micro management….it should be a mission approach for optimum results.

  • Steven Wilson

    June 29, 2019 at 1:40 pm

    Good article, Tom.
    My experience as the executive officer of a field artillery battery was completely different as regards to duties, but the same regarding a commander who was clear in his guidance. On my first day, the CO told me, “The First Sergeant and the battery clerk report to me; everyone else reports to you. I go to briefings and take care of the administration. You run the firing battery and everything else supports the firing battery.” And that was the way it was for the entire assignment. I still tell people that the role of XO in a field artillery firing battery is the best job in the army for a first lieutenant!