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An executive officer is generally a person responsible for running an organization, although the exact nature of the role varies depending on the organization.
While there is no clear line between executive or principal and inferior officers, principal officers are high-level officials in the executive branch of U.S. government such as department heads of independent agencies. In Humphrey's Executor v. United States, 295 U.S. 602 (1935), the Court distinguished between executive officers and quasi-legislative or quasi-judicial officers by stating that the former serve at the pleasure of the president and may be removed at his discretion. The latter may be removed only with procedures consistent with statutory conditions enacted by Congress. The decision by the Court was that the Federal Trade Commission was a quasi-legislative body because of other powers it had, and therefore the president could not fire an FTC member for political reasons. Congress can’t retain removal power over officials with executive function (Bowsher v. Synar). However, statutes can restrict removal if not purely executive (Humphrey’s executor), but can't restrict removal of purely executive officer (Myers v. United States, 272 U.S. 52 (1926)). The standard is whether restriction "impedes the president’s ability to perform his constitutional duty" (Morrison v. Olson, 487 U.S. 654 (1988)).
Corporate law and other legal associations
In business, the executive officers are the top officers of a corporation, the chief executive officer (CEO) being the best-known type. The definition varies; for instance, the California Corporate Disclosure Act defines "executive officers" as the five most highly compensated officers not also sitting on the board of directors. In many insurance policies, executive officer means, in the case of a corporation, any chairman, chief executive officer, chief financial officer, chief operating officer, president, or general counsel. In the case of a sole proprietorship, an executive officer is the sole proprietor. In the case of a partnership, an executive officer is a managing partner, senior partner, or administrative partner. In the case of a limited liability company, an executive officer is any member, manager, or officer.
In the airline industry, the executive officer, more commonly known as the first officer, is the second in command of the aircraft. In a fixed wing aircraft the first officer sits in the right-hand seat but a rotary wing aircraft they sit on the left.
In non-naval military services or in joint military organizations, the executive officer is an administrative staff position versus a command position. XOs in these positions typically assist a commander or deputy commander (or in the case of joint staffs or joint commands, a director) by managing day-to-day activities such as management of the senior officer's schedule, screening of documents or other products, and oversight of the senior officer's administrative support staff.
The term is not used in the British Army or Royal Marines (RM), in which the designation second-in-command (2i/c) is used as a formal appointment. In the Royal Air Force (RAF), the term is informally used between officers and airmen, referring to the officer who is second-in-command. It is formally used in the Royal Navy (RN), however. In smaller vessels, such as submarines and frigates, the executive officer also holds the position of first lieutenant. Originally, the second-in-command was usually referred to as first lieutenant (or as "number one"), although it is becoming more common to hear the term XO. On larger ships, on which the XO holds the rank of commander, the XO is usually referred to simply as "the commander". The XO heads the executive department.
In the United States Navy and United States Coast Guard, XOs are assigned to all ships, aviation squadrons and shore units and installations. On board those Coast Guard cutters that are commanded by either a junior officer or a senior enlisted member, executive petty officers (XPOs) are usually assigned to serve as second-in-command. On U.S. aircraft carriers, per United States Code, both the captain (i.e., commanding officer or CO) and the XO assigned to the ship are Naval Aviators or Naval Flight Officers, while large, air-capable amphibious assault ships will have one of the two senior positions (CO or XO) occupied by a Surface Warfare Officer and the other by a Naval Aviator or Naval Flight Officer, alternating at each change of command. In Naval Aviation, in U.S. Navy squadrons (other than Fleet Replacement Squadrons), the XO will eventually "fleet up" to become the CO of that squadron after twelve to fifteen months as XO. This fleet up model was also adopted in the early 2000s for XO and CO positions of both large amphibious assault ships and Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers. In addition to operational / tactical responsibilities, XOs will also shoulder most of the CO's administrative burden, to include oversight of the command's Administrative Officer )if assigned) and Administrative Department.
The term of XO in the Navy and Coast Guard should not be confused with the term Executive Assistant (EA) in those services, the latter being a officer in the rank of Captain (O-6) who serves either dual-hatted as, or in addition to, the Chief of Staff to a flag officer.
In the United States Marine Corps the executive officer is the billet of the officer who is second-in-command at the company/battery, battalion/squadron, and Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU)/regiment/aviation group (i.e., Marine Aircraft Group, Marine Air Control Group, and Marine Wing Support Group) level. Per the Marine Corps Manual, paragraph 1007.5: “The executive officer shall be an officer of the organization who is eligible to succeed to command, and normally will be the officer next in rank to the commander. As the direct representative of the commander, all orders issued by the executive officer shall have the same force and effect as though issued by the commander. The executive officer shall conform to and effectuate the policies and orders of the commander and shall be prepared to assume command at any time the need should arise.” At higher levels of command the second-in-command is the assistant division/wing commander or, in the case of a Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF), deputy commander. For those commands having a general officer (usually a brigadier general) in command without a designated assistant commander or deputy commander, such as a Marine Expeditionary Brigade (MEB) or Marine Logistics Group (MLG), the chief of staff (a colonel) is the second-in-command. Unlike their U.S. Navy counterparts, XOs of Marine Corps squadrons in Naval Aviation do not "fleet up" to become CO.
In the United States Army there are executive officer (XO) slots in each company, battalion, and brigade, though generally not at higher levels of command until the army level of command. The XO billet is not a command position; rather it is considered staff. The XO is typically responsible for the management of day-to-day activities, such as administration, maintenance and logistics, freeing a field grade commander to concentrate on tactical/operational planning and execution and a general officer commander to concentrate on similar planning and execution at the operational/strategic level. In certain situations, the XO may take charge in the absence of the commander, but this is rare and typically by exception. While the experience gained as an XO is highly beneficial for an Army officer's professional development, it is not necessarily a prerequisite for a command position. At the army level of command, a Commanding General will have a Deputy Commanding General as second in command and an 'Executive Officer' on his personal staff who works as his liaison to the general staff and an aide-de-camp who takes care of his calendar and personal needs.
The United States Air Force (USAF) uses the titles of "vice commander" (CV), or "deputy commander" (CD) for an officer who serves as the second-in-command for an organization above squadron level. For a squadron, the second-in-command is typically termed the "director of operations" or "operations officer" (DO). In manner similar to the U.S. Army, the term "executive officer" in the U.S. Air Force is used to designate an officer who serves as an administrative assistant to a senior officer, typically a commander at the squadron level or above (e.g., squadron, group, wing, numbered air force, major command). In the other uniformed services, this position may be called an "executive assistant" or adjutant.
There are also officers assigned as "aide-de-camp" to general officers in the U.S. Army or Marine Corps, or as "flag aide" or "flag lieutenant" to flag officers (i.e., rear admiral and above) in the U.S. Navy and Coast Guard. The rank of an executive officer can vary from lieutenant (working for a colonel) to a colonel (serving as the executive officer to the Chief of Staff of the Air Force.)  like the Army, while experience gained as an XO is highly beneficial for an Air Force officer's professional development, it is not necessarily a prerequisite for a command position.
A unique application of the term is executive officer to the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, and commander, United States European Command. This position is typically held by a brigadier general or rear admiral (LH) and is drawn from all of the armed services. The duties involve serving as both an "executive assistant" to Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) and also includes command responsibilities for the U.S. military community at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) in Belgium.
- Air Force Organization, AFI 32-101 http://www.e-publishing.af.mil/shared/media/epubs/AFI38-101.pdf
- The Executive Officer Guide http://www.afmentor.com/mentor/execguide-appendix-b.html Accessed 2012-05-02.
- Biography of Brigadier General Gregory Lengyel, Executive Officer to SACUER (2010-2012) http://archive.is/20120717150747/http://www.af.mil/information/bios/bio.asp?bioID=13949 Accessed on 2012-05-02.