In the car this morning, I was musing about how people set priorities and how they deal with conflicting priorities. This led me back to a subject I’ve wondered about several times. As I understand it, the general rule in the military is that an order from a higher-ranking officer supersedes an order from a lower-ranking officer (“officer” includes NCOs for purposes of this discussion). That makes sense in the obvious case where both officers are in the same chain of command – ranks would have little meaning otherwise – but what if they’re not? Does an order from a colonel outside your chain of command supersede one from a major within it? What about from someone in a vastly different part of the military, perhaps even another branch where the ranks don’t always line up perfectly? I can speculate about some possible answers, but it’s only speculation.

  1. Higher rank wins, unconditionally.
  2. Those outside your chain of command have no authority over you at all, and must contact your chain of command.
  3. Hybrid: apply rule A in combat or other urgent situations, rule B otherwise.
  4. Stupid: “discount” the orderer’s effective rank according to how far removed they are from your chain of command. (Yes, this is unworkable and certainly not the real answer, but it approximates what people do “naturally” in other realms such as business.)

So, does anyone actually know which rule is used, or know where I can find an authoritative answer? A similar question is: what happens when you receive an order from someone of rank X which is directly pursuant to an order they had from another officer of higher rank Y (but you had no direct order from Y)? For purposes of determining the precedence of X’s order vs. others, does rank X or Y apply? (Computer folks might recognize this as a priority inversion/inheritance problem.) Any answers people can provide would be appreciated.