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The Chain of Command

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Not pictured: the President reporting to the First Lady.

Freeza: Ginyu?
Ginyu: Guldo?
Guldo: Right!

When an organisation gets to a certain size, it becomes necessary for the higher ups to start delegating to subordinates since it becomes harder and harder for them to keep track of everything going on. It's one thing for the Big Good to issue instructions directly to the Five-Man Band when it's just a small La Résistance of a few dozen people, but that becomes unwieldy when you get to the level of The Federation and the Big Good now commands thousands or hundreds of thousands of people.

A chain of command refers to formal (or sometimes informal) ranking systems where people at the top and bottom of the chain generally don't communicate directly. Instead, if the person at the top wants something done he or she issues the command to their direct subordinate, who then passes the order down to their subordinate, who then passes down the order to their's, until it reaches the people who actually execute the task (this being akin to the links in a chain, hence the "chain" in chain of command). Similarly, someone wanting to report something would be expected to report to their direct superior, who would then pass it up to their superior up the chain until it reaches someone who can actually do something about it.

While this most often appears in Military and Warfare Works, this can be seen in just about any work that involves organisations, such as Crime Fiction (on both sides of the law), School Stories Example  or even businesses. A common breach of protocol can involve a subordinate bypassing their direct superior and going right to their superior (described as "going over someone's head"). Similarly, it can be considered poor form for a superior to bypass their direct subordinate to issue commands directly to the subordinate's subordinates, even if it's technically allowed. Example  In addition, it'd be a faux pas for an officer to give orders to the subordinates of another officer directly without consulting the other officer. The chain of command means that individual members take orders from only one superior and only give orders to a defined group of people immediately below them, in order to maintain clarity and to avoid confusion.

As far as the military is concerned, however, there are some basic rules to the chain of command (which can also apply to organisations based on the the military model like police):

  1. In general, military personnel give orders only to those directly below them in the chain of command and receive orders only from those directly above them. E.g. a captain wouldn't directly give orders to a corporal, instead giving the orders to a lieutenant who'd then pass them to a sergeant who'd then order the corporal. Similarly, a general wouldn't give orders directly to a captain; instead the captain's orders would come from his or her direct superior like a major.

  2. An officer is usually expected to give orders only to his or her direct subordinate(s), regardless of rank. Example 

  3. Higher rank doesn't necessarily mean higher up the chain of command, with authority also depending on one's position within a particular chain of command. This is why the G.I.Joe example below is an example of Shown Their Work, since while Duke is merely a First Sergeant, in the G.I.Joe chain of command he's the field commander and so outranks people who'd outrank him normally.

There are, naturally, problems with a chain of command. The longer the chain, the more time it takes for orders and reports to go up and down the chain, resulting in a slowed reaction time. An Obstructive Bureaucrat or two can add to the slowed reaction time, especially if they're sticklers for protocol. Right Hand Versus Left Hand can come about because the people lower down the chain don't know what others are doing and so accidentally get in each others' way. The Peter Principle occurs when someone is promoted up the chain beyond their ability to perform, thus also affecting the smooth running of the organisation. Jurisdiction Friction and Interservice Rivalry can also result (especially when a particular unit or group is placed outside the regular chain of command, breeding resentment), as well as a Delegation Relay when people don't want do deal with something and so use the chain of command to pass the buck (either upwards or downwards). Part of the reason a Bavarian Fire Drill can work is when people are so accustomed to following a chain of command they forget a crucial step (which is to confirm the person giving orders is actually authorised to do so). And that's before getting into the possibilities of The Mole or worse a Mole in Charge.

Expect to see this in media involving a Command Roster or The Squad, while Mildly Military works might at least pay lip service. Repeat to Confirm is one way the chain of command can be shown as moving smoothly, as it makes sure there's no ambiguity about orders coming down. That's an Order! and That Wasn't a Request are two ways how orders can be delivered via the chain of command (the former being more formal than the latter). This trope is also why Straight for the Commander and Decapitated Army exist, since even if the opposing force isn't a Keystone Army the disruption that comes about from reestablishing the chain of command opens opportunities that can be exploited. You Are in Command Now, Field Promotion even Closest Thing We Got are scenarios that can happen when the regular chain of command is disrupted or broken, forcing people to repair the chain or form a new one as best they can. Inappropriately Close Comrades can be Played for Drama specifically because of fears of disruption to the chain of command.

Not to be confused with The Chains of Commanding, which can overlap with this due to that trope being about how being higher up the chain can lead to much heavier mental stress. Also nothing to do with Slave Collar (which was formerly named Chain Of Command).


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    Anime and Manga 
  • Gundam
    • One of the plot points in Mobile Suit Gundam is the White Base being designated the 13th Autonomous Corps, giving Bright Noa the freedom to move between theatres of war rather than being tied down to a particular army or fleet. Once they enter a particular theatre, however, they place themselves under the command of the overall commander Example . The Final Battle at A Baoa Qu becomes a chaotic mess when General Revil is killed by the Colony Laser along with 20% of the Federation fleet during the approach, meaning that during the battle itself individual fleet commanders are directing their forces as best they can without a higher authority coordinating their efforts.
    • On the Zeon side, as part of the "Zeon as Nazis" analogy Interservice Rivalry is encouraged by Gihren Zabi, meaning clashes between chains of command happen. One of the most notable examples is what does in Ramba Ral: he was sent to Earth under orders from his commander Dozle Zabi (commander of the Zeon Space Assault Force). However, he was reliant on supplies from Colonel M'Quve, who was under Kycilia Zabi's Armored Assault Force. Despite Dozle being a Lieutenant General and thus higher ranked than Kycilia (a Major General), M'Quve is not under his command and so Dozle has no right or ability to force him to assist. M'Quve spitefully claiming that a unit of powerful new Dom Mobile Suits was lost in transit is what forces Ramba Ral to launch a Death or Glory Attack commando raid on the White Base that ends with him and his troops dead.
    • The chain of command is why in most side stories set during the One Year War period (e.g. Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket, Mobile Suit Gundam: The 08th MS Team, Mobile Suit Gundam Side Story 0079: Rise From The Ashes), Gihren Zabi is considered the Greater-Scope Villain: since he's Zeon supreme commander he's not involved in the much smaller scale operations of those series other than issuing the strategic objectives (e.g. in 08th MS Team he's the one who authorised the development of the Apsalas Project).
    • Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam: Part of the reason the Anti-Earth Union Group (AEUG) is formed and includes many members and ex-members of the Earth Federation military is because the Titans were formed and deliberately placed outside the military chain of command, yet given authority over the regular military. As an example, Jerid Mesa (a mere Lieutenant Junior Grade) is able to physically assault war hero Bright Noa (who at the rank of Commander is three ranks above him) with impunity simply because Jerid was a Titan and Bright wasn't. The Titans also abuse their authority by using regular Federal troops as Cannon Fodder.
  • Transformers: In Japan, the heroic leader characters are generally given the rank of Sou shirei-kan (総司令官, literally Commander General, usually translated as Supreme Commander) to reflect their status as leaders. However, while this made sense for characters like Convoy (Optimus Prime), Rodimus Convoy (Rodimus Prime), Fortress, Star Saber and Diatlas who commanded the entire faction (and Star Saber was also the commander of the Pan-Galactic Defense Force), the title was also given to God Ginrai, Convoy (Optimus Primal), Lio Convoy and Big Convoy, despite them merely leading small teams of Autobots/ Maximals instead of the whole faction.
    • A magazine article during Fight! Super Robot Lifeform Transformers 2010(i.e. the third season of The Transformers) helped clarify the chain of command according to the Japanese G1 continuity.
      • For the Autobots, Rodimus Convoy/ Rodimus Prime was at the top while Ultra Magnus acted as his Number Two. In addition, Ultra Magnus had authority over Metroplex (thanks to his rank of City Commander) and the Scramble City teams (i.e. the Autobot Combiners). Meanwhile, Meister/Jazz (who formerly served as Convoy/Optimus Prime's right hand) kept command of the Autobot unit (i.e. the 1986 cast who transformed into cars), the Minibots, the Dinobots and the Female Autobots.
      • On the Decepticon side, Galvatron was naturally at the top. Cyclonus commanded the Decepticon jets (including Scourge and the Sweeps), the Decepticon combiners and Trypticon. However, Soundwave reports directly to Galvatron and so is outside the normal chain of command.
    • Transformers: The★Headmasters: The chain of command suffered several shakeups during the series on both sides. The Autobots and Decepticons were initially led by Optimus Prime and Galvatron (with Ultra Magnus and Sixshot respectively acting as sub-commanders in command over their Earth-based troops). When Optimus performed a Heroic Sacrifice to save Cybertron, Rodimus Prime assumed command of the Autobots (and both sides were reinforced by the titular Headmasters, with their leaders Fortress and Scorponok becoming high-ranking commanders). Rodimus resigned after Cybertron's destruction, leading Fortress to become the Supreme Commander for the remainder of the series. Meanwhile, Scorponok assumed command of the Decepticons when Galvatron was missing and presumed dead following Cybertron's destruction, until Galvatron revealed he was Not Quite Dead. After he was permanently put down, Scorponok took his place as the Big Bad. Meanwhile, Ultra Magnus was killed in action and replaced by Metroplex, while Sixshot eventually defected from the Decepticons (and was not replaced as commander of Earth forces due to the Decepticons planning to retreat from Earth anyway).
    • Transformers: Super-God Masterforce: Both sides are explicitly described as being independent units separate from the main Autobot and Decepticon forces (who are mentioned as continuing their battles in deep space and so unable to assist on Earth). Metalhawk is initially leader of the Autobot forces on Earth and keeps in touch with Fortress to keep him updated. He later steps down and has Ginrai take over, and instead focuses on his role as Mission Control. Meanwhile, the Decepticons are initially led by Blood, who then reveals he gets his orders from Giga and Mega. As the series goes on, both sides receive aid and reinforcements from the main armies in the form of Brave Maximus (younger brother of Fortress Maximus) and Black Zarak (a rebuilt and upgraded version of Scorponok from the previous series). The death of Black Zarak at the end of the series is described in ancillary material as leaving the Decepticons in disarray until Overlord manages to rally a chunk of their forces.
    • Transformers Victory: Star Saber is the supreme commander of the Pan-Galactic Defense Force as well as the Autobots, with Blacker and God Ginrai serving under him as commanders of the Sector 1 and Sector 2 defense forces respectively. In the first episode, it's the presence of Decepticon Emperor of Destruction Deathsaurus nearby Earth that prompts Star Saber to go to Sector 1 and assume command in person. Halfway through the series God Ginrai was mortally wounded and rebuilt as the more unstable Victory Leo, prompting Star Saber to appoint Greatshot as commander of Sector 2. Unusually, it's implied that despite being the Emperor of Destruction, Deathsaurus doesn't actually have absolute control of the entire Decepticon faction, since Overlord is depicted as commanding his own forces having a separate war with his old enemy God Ginrai's Sector 2 forces.

    Comic Books 
  • Despite their codenames, both Steve Rogers and Carol Danvers as Captain Marvel actually hold much higher ranks than Captain, allowing them to order regular US troops around when necessary. On one occasion, Carol tried to pull rank on Cap by stating that she had the rank of Colonel in the air force and demanding that Cap obey her, but Cap retorted that he's ranked Brigader General (presumably thanks to seniority).
  • Captain Atom sometimes has to deal with the fact that as a serving member of the US military, he has to take orders from superior officers that might conflict with his ideals as a superhero.
  • In Combat Kelly and his Deadly Dozen #4, Sergeant Nick Fury assumes command when Captain Conner (who was meant to command the Allied troops bracing for an Axis assault) is paralyzed with fear. Kelly points out that as an NCO, Fury doesn't have the right to do so but Fury retorts that since the battle has already begun there isn't time to find an officer to take Conner's place.
  • Transformers:
    • In The Transformers (IDW), Prowl expresses frustration with the fact that the Autobots don't seem to take the chain of command seriously and opt to listen to charismatic "heroes" rather than actual superiors. The Wreckers, the Monsterbots and the Dynobots are examples of units that completely ignored chain of command and basically went off doing whatever they wanted. Both the Monsterbots and Dynobots ended up being branded as renegades and deserters, though Grimlock got the other Dynobots pardoned by capturing Scorponok and Shockwave and turning over proof that he'd lied to the others about their mission, so they thought they were following an order from Optimus Prime. To Prowl's disappointment, even Optimus Prime seemed to prefer taking the advice of Hot-Blooded-types like Ironhide or Kup than someone Boring, but Practical like him, despite Prowl's entire job being the strategist. This bites the Autobots in a big way during The Surge, when the Decepticons launched an all-out attack on all Autobot holdings simultaneously. After the Megaseries ended, however, Prowl's characterization began to change and he was shown to have had much more command and authority all along, to the point that he'd been able to run missions that Optimus Prime never found out about.
    • One of the character profiles in The Transformers: Last Stand of the Wreckers is written from the point of view of a Decepticon commander scheduled for execution for assisting the renegade Overlord. He points out that technically Overlord was never actually stripped of his rank and so was still a superior officer, meaning he was simply following the chain of command.

    Fan Works 
  • This Bites!: Luffy is the captain of the Straw Hat Pirates, and all orders from him are final. After Whiskey Peak, he selects Nami and Cross as the Second and Third Mate respectively (with Zoro already being the First Mate) to take charge when he isn't able to or come up with plans that he couldn't, particularly from the tactician Cross.

    Films - Live-Action 
  • Crimson Tide: A big part of the drama comes from the fact that Both Sides Have a Point in regards to the chain of command: Captain Ramsey wants to execute the orders they managed to receive, but Executive Officer Hunter argues that since another set of orders were Lost in Transmission they ought to hold back until they're able to confirm said orders (in case the interrupted orders were meant to rescind the first ones). In addition, Ramsey feels Hunter ought to step back in line and follow his orders, as he's the commanding officer of the submarine. Hunter meanwhile feels that due to the fact they're dealing with nuclear weapons they need to be absolutely sure that they're not wrong, because otherwise they'll inadvertently set off World War III.
  • Margin Call provides a very stark business example of the chain of command. Before the 2008 credit collapse, Peter Sullivan, a junior risk analyst at a major investment bank discovers a problem with their main investment products that could cause the firm to become insolvent in a single trading day if people started panic selling. He reports this to his boss's boss (his original boss, senior analyst Eric Dale, was fired earlier that day), a senior trader, who reports this to his boss, the trading floor manager, who reports this to his bosses, the division chief and the chief risk management officer, before finally bringing in the CEO for an emergency meeting with all the partners.
  • Master and Commander: The midshipman Mr Hollom is nigh universally disliked by his crewmates, with even Captain Aubery having a certain amount of contempt for him. The seamen dislike him because of his indecisive demeanor (not helped by his pathetically transparent attempts to bond with the crew members), while Aubery dislikes him because those same flaws means he has few to no leadership qualities and so jeopardizes the chain of command note . His fears come to pass when one of the crew deliberately bumps into Hollom and walks off, prompting the enraged captain to have the man locked up. He also summons Hollom to his cabin to dress him down for not taking any action himself, since by permitting such a blatant and public show of insolence to go unpunished he jeopardized the crew's discipline. Aubery later has the offender who bumped into Hollom flogged for insubordination.
  • Spaceballs: In the first scene Colonel Sanders is informed by his subordinate that their target planet is in view, and that the subordinate already informed Dark Helmet. However, Dark Helmet is furious when he learns that the subordinate directly reported the news to President Skroob as well, in his words: "You went over my helmet?" He quickly reminds the crewman of his place.
  • Star Wars
    • Ancillary material explains that despite Star Wars: A New Hope depicting Stormtroopers aboard Star Destroyers, they're actually different branches. Due to not wanting to risk anyone gaining enough power to challenge his position, Emperor Palpatine set up the Galactic Empire's military to be mutually reliant: the Imperial Army doesn't have their own ships to transport them from world to world, the Imperial Navy has no soldiers (which is why Stormtroopers are used) and the Imperial Stormtrooper Corps are drilled to be loyal to him alone. Each branch has their own chain of command (the officers shown giving orders to Stormtroopers in A New Hope are actually Stormtrooper officers, not Navy officers). This is the reason why in the famous Death Star meeting scene the various top officers are wearing different uniforms: they're from different branches. note 
    • Revenge of the Sith has one of the best examples of bypassing the chain of command: Chancellor Palpatine (in his role as head of state) directly contacts the Clone Troopers to initiate Order 66. This is natural, since passing orders down the chain normally would involve going through the Jedi who are serving as generals. In addition, despite having fought under Jedi for years by that point, all the Clones unhesitatingly open fire on their Jedi generals, as they've been trained to be perfect soldiers who follow their orders. note 
    • Star Wars: The Last Jedi has a demonstration of what happens when the chain of command breaks down and isn't followed properly: when General Leia is incapacitated and the rest of the Resistance leaders (including the venerable Admiral Ackbar) are killed, Admiral Holdo keeps her cards to her chest and doesn't share her plans with anyone, even when outright asked by Poe Dameron (who she suspects is a security risk due to his Hot-Blooded nature). Her continued refusal to keep Poe Dameron informed or updated (despite him being a high-ranking member of the Resistance) leads him to suspect she has no idea what she's doing and just trying to act the part, making him desperate enough to send people out to try an alternate escape plan... one that actually winds up getting most of the Resistance killed.

  • Enid Blyton had stories where the main characters (who were normally children) recognise they've reached the extent of what they can do and that it's now time to call in the adults.
    • The Five Findouters often relied on their friend Inspector Jenkins to actually deal with any criminals they uncover. This generally meant going over the head of PC Goon, who disliked the kids immensely (and the feeling was very much mutual).
    • In The Naughtiest Girl series, punishments are decided upon during a schoolwide assembly headed by the Head Boy and Head Girl, with the headmistresses present simply as observers. On at least one occasion, the Head Boy and Head Girl realise they've out of their depth and call upon the headmistresses to take over.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Babylon 5. The chain of command plays a role in the resolution of "Point Of No Return", when Sheridan realises that the order for Nightwatch to assume control of security operations and to implement martial law comes from the Political Office, a civilian organisation with no authority over the military. This allows him to arrest the members of Nightwatch for technically participating in a mutiny, as they were following an illegal order.
  • CSI: NY: Discussed in "Officer Blue." One suspect had been dishonorably discharged from the Army because he went against orders from his commanding officer. Mac takes much offense from this and tells the man that, as a Marine, he knows the chain of command is sacrosanct.
  • Played for Laughs on Firefly when Jayne is trying to put himself in charge while Mal and Zoe are out. Fortunately Simon drugged him and he passes out moments later.
    Jayne: You know what the chain of command is? It’s the chain I ruttin’ beat you with til you understand who’s in charge here.
  • Star Trek:
    • Star Trek: The Next Generation:
      • "Chain Of Command" has another captain (Captain Jellico) take temporary command of the Enterprise while Captain Picard participates in a secret mission, and when Picard is captured by the Cardassians Jellico continues to command the Enterprise during the crisis. His Control Freak leadership style conflicts badly with the Mildly Military atmosphere encouraged by Picard, to the point that Riker becomes so insubordinate Jellico relieves him of duty. In an example of Both Sides Have a Point, Riker is correct in that Jellico is negatively impacting morale, but Jellico is also absolutely correct that as a professional, Riker should've kept his personal feelings to himself and carried out his duties. It also doesn't help that Jellico is preparing the Enterprise for a potential war, meaning that he doesn't have time or the inclination for the more polite tone Picard tends to use.
      • "Gambit" has Data assume command of the Enterprise due to both Picard and Riker being out of commission (due to them accidentally getting caught up with the smugglers the Enterprise is investigating). Worf acts as his Executive Officer, but after he openly expresses his displeasure with Data's decisions Data is forced to quietly confront him. While he concedes Worf's point that an Executive Officer ought to offer alternatives to the captain, the issue was that when Data made a decision Worf disagreed with he made that displeasure clear in front of the crew, thus undermining Data's command. Worf accepts Data's argument and apologises.
    • Star Trek: Discovery: One of the complaints about the series is how there is blatant disrespect for the chain of command, with crewmen often talking back to or snarking at their superior officers. Even taking into account the Mildly Military nature of Starfleet, such unprofessional behaviour was so blatant that it broke Willing Suspension of Disbelief.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Warhammer 40,000
    • Because of the sheer size of the Imperium of Man, just about any problem that can come up due to a chain of command comes up. Interservice Rivalry, Right Hand Versus Left Hand, Jurisdiction Friction, slow reactions, you name it, it's probably happened. There are several examples of calls for reinforcements received and troops dispatched decades or even centuries after the planet that made the request has either fallen or been outright destroyed.
    • Among Loyalist Space Marines, whenever Chapters come together there is nearly always some friction as to the chain of command, especially when rivalries get involved. Even when successor Chapters from the same legion meet up, there can be friction. However, this is averted if the original Chapter (e.g. the Salamanders, the Ultramarines, the Imperial Fists) are present, as they automatically take command of their successor Chapters. For example, when the Blood Angels summoned their successor Chapters to help prepare the defense of their homeworld of Baal against the Tyranids, Commander Dante of the Blood Angels took command of all the Chapters that arrived (incidentally, the only Chapter that didn't return for the conflict was the Lamenters, and Dante admitted he wasn't even sure if the Lamenters were even alive due to their reputation as a Cosmic Plaything).
    • The Alpha Legion is infamous for not having a static chain of command, completely averting Decapitated Army. Each Alpha Legionnaire is trained to be able to assume command in case his superior is killed, and each squad is drilled to already know their mission objectives so even the loss of a commander barely slows them down. This also grants them a huge amount of flexibility, since they're able to respond to changes on the battlefield much faster than other factions. Fitting, considering their emblem depicts a Hydra.
    • The Emperor's Adeptus Custodes don't really have a chain of command barring their leaders the Captain-General and his advisors the Tribunes. There are Shield-Captains who command units of Custodes, but they're generally chosen from the ranks for specific missions. Generally the Custodes operate as a meritocracy where it's the achievements of the individual Custodes that grant them respect from their fellows, rather than their rank or position. Like the Alpha Legion, this allows them a great amount of flexibility in a fight, as they don't need to report to or request authorisation from higher authorities. Later novels reveal that after the Horus Heresy, the Emperor's surviving loyalist sons drafted an order that restricted the Custodes to Earth and the Imperial Palace. The Custodes publicly adhered to the order... but quietly ignored it and carried on sending secret missions into space because despite being the sons of the Emperor, the Primarchs don't actually have any authority over them.
    • Among the Traitor Legions, the Iron Warriors are unusual in that they still have an actual chain of command, as opposed to the Asskicking Leads to Leadership Chronic Backstabbing Disorder Klingon Promotion method practiced by most of the other Traitors. The Word Bearers likewise still have a chain of command... in theory. In practice, their Primarch Lorgar doesn't bother much with petty material matters, and their leading council is divided into two opposing camps.

  • G.I. Joe. G.I.Joe's A Real American Hero characters all have a military rank (barring a few outliers), something Larry Hama paid close attention to when he was developing the characters. However, the chain of command in G.I.Joe differs from the actual ranks the characters have, partially because the Joe team is a combined unit with members from various branches of the military serving under the same chain of command.
    • General Hawk is ranked O-7 (Brigadier General) and the one in command of the Joe team as a whole. However, the field commander is Duke with a rank of E-8 (First Sergeant). Duke is explicitly higher up the Joe chain of command than Flint (W-2, Chief Warrant Officer), Cutter (O-2, Lieutenant Junior Grade), and Doc and Ace (both O-3, Captain), all of whom outrank him according to their branches. Shipwreck (E-7, Chief Petty Officer) isn't even in the chain of command while Beach Head (E-6, Staff Sergeant) is.
    • Since COBRA is a terrorist organisation their filecards instead mention the closest estimated equivalent. For example, the Crimson Guard's filecard gives them a rank of E-4 (or equivalent), while Cobra Commander's grade is simply given as Commander-In-Chief. A few COBRA aligned characters who are technically outside consultants like Firefly, Wild Weasel and even Destro don't have ranks. note 
  • Transformers
    • The mini bios that came with Transformers toys starting from Transformers: Generation One up until Beast Wars included Tech Specs with Rank being one of the specs given. Generally, the likes of Optimus Prime and Optimus Primal and both the original Megatron and Beast Megatron would have a rank of 10 (as they are leaders of their respective factions), with other characters having ranks appropriate to their importance to their armies rather than their individual strength. For example, among the Autobots the mighty Omega Supreme has a rank of 7, while chief strategist Prowl and Special Operations head Jazz are ranked 9 and 8 respectively. Team leaders (e.g. Motormaster of the Stunticons, Onslaught of the Combaticons, Silverbolt of the Aerialbots) would have a higher rank than their subordinates (normally a rank of 7, while their subordinates would range from Rank 5 to 6).
    • One unusual case was Gutcruncher, who had a rank of 10 (presumably because while nominally allied to the Decepticons, he was more of an outside contractor). Another unusual case was the Constructicons, who all had the same rank (5), even their leader Scrapper. In an amusing mix-up, the Seekers Starscream and Skywarp accidentally had their spec numbers swapped, resulting in Decepticon second-in-command Starscream having the absurdly low rank of 5 while Dumb Muscle Skywarp is ranked 9. Meanwhile, the colossal Trypticon was given a rank of 9 despite never being shown to command other Decepticons. Presumably, this was simply due to him not bothering to take orders from anyone other than Megatron.

    Video Games 
  • In Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars, GDI's chain of command results in a hasty reassignment of leadership after the Philadelphia space station is destroyed at the start of the game, much of GDI's higher-ups with them as they were attending an energy summit at the time. Secretary of the Treasury Redmond Boyle is made acting director, who often thinks more about publicity and makes rash decisions for GDI. In Kane's Wrath it's revealed that this is exploited by none other than Kane, who was counting on Boyle's hot-headedness to advance his own agenda.
  • Dragon Ball Fighter Z has a mild example when Freeza and the Ginyu Force encounter the heroes. When he decides to withdraw, he gives orders to Ginyu, who then orders his subordinate Guldo to paralyze the heroes with his psychic powers, allowing the villains to escape.
  • Fallout: New Vegas allows removing the Elder from the Brotherhood of Steel for violating the Chain That Binds, because the Elder skipped ranks when giving orders concerning the security of the bunker.
  • Starcraft: When Terran units are grouped together, the units are arranged in order of rank, with the highest ranks going first. While ranks are just a cosmetic rating, more powerful units are higher ranking and so will be listed first. For example, if gathering a mixed force, you'd have Goliaths (First Sergeant) followed by Siege tanks (Master Sergeant) followed by Vultures (Sergeant), then Firebats (Corporal) and finally the Marines (Private). On the other hand, heroes will always go first, no matter their rank e.g. Sarah Kerrigan (Lieutenant) will be listed ahead of units like Wraiths (Captain) or Battlecruisers (Commodore). This is ditched in Starcraft II, where units that have more and frequently-used abilities are prioritized first, and ranks are determined by kills instead.
  • Super Robot Wars sometimes plays with the chain of command thanks to the crossover aspect. For example, in Super Robot Wars Alpha, Colonel Bright Noa is the overall head of the combined heroes. However, as a professional courtesy, when faced by the Space Monsters he defers to Captain Tashiro of the Excellion, who has more experience facing them. Conversely, when the cast of Neon Genesis Evangelion join the team, he's informed by NERV commander Gendo Ikari that NERV is given formal authority over any Angel-related conflict and so whenever an Angel appears Major Misato Katsuragi of NERV takes formal operational command.
    • In Super Robot Wars 30, Mitsuba Greyvalley is eager to link up with the Ra Callium commanded by Bright, and when they finally meet she offers him command of the unified heroes (as she's technically just an officer cadet while he's a veteran commander). Bright declines and says he'll only join if she remains in command, explaining that he believes she'd do a better job considering the Mildly Military nature of the unit. He also points out that she was directly appointed by Commodore Filke, and so it wouldn't be appropriate for him to just take charge without at least consulting the Commodore first.
  • Transformers: War for Cybertron: In the first level of the Autobot campaign (which chronologically takes part after the Decepticon campaign), the Autobots defending their capital of Iacon are pushed to the brink by the Decepticons due to their leader Sentinel Prime going missing (in truth he'd been captured by Megatron). They only manage to drive the Decepticons back when Optimus assumes command and rallies them, issuing orders to Jetfire (commanding their air forces), putting Ratchet in charge of holding a forward command post to act as Mission Control, and personally leading the defense on the ground. After becoming Optimus Prime, he actually spends less time on the field due to being more useful actually directing the war effort.
  • Part of the reason Leandros from Warhammer 40,000: Space Marine is so disliked is because despite protesting that many of Captain Titus' actions "are not supported by the Codex Astartes", in the ending it's shown that he's reported his suspicions of Captain Titus being tainted by the Warp to the Inquisition instead of his Chapter's Chaplains and Librarians like he's supposed to. note  This is a case where going over the head of his direct superior (in this case Captain Titus) would be the correct course of action, but Leandros instead completely ignores the chain of command and reports to an outside organisation instead. Ancillary material suggests that as a result of his actions, he's treated as a pariah by the other Ultramarines, and unlikely to ever get promoted out of his current rank of Battle Brother (the lowest rank).

  • xkcd: Parodied in "Chain of Command" which points out that no one has more authority than the person who actually gives someone the trigger for a this case, the US nuclear arsenal.

    Western Animation 
  • Avatar: The Last Airbender: As part of his plans to capture the Avatar, Commander Zhao of the Fire Nation Navy approaches Colonel Shinu hoping to make use of his elite Yuyan Archers. Dismissing the hunt as a vanity project, Shinu declines. However, at that moment a messenger hawk arrives informing Zhao of his promotion to Admiral, and so he smugly informs Shinu that "my request is now an order." Shinu complies, and the Archers do indeed manage to capture Aang.
  • Gargoyles: In addition to the Clan Leader, there is also the position of Second, formerly held by Goliath when Hudson was in charge and then by Demona before her Face–Heel Turn. When they got transplanted to Manhattan the gargoyles became rather lax about that (when they were initially reawakened, there were only 6 of them left), but an incident wherein Goliath got injured caused him to revive the practice, with Brooklyn gaining the title. This became important when Goliath, Elisa, and Bronx disappeared on their world tour, forcing Brooklyn to assume command to prevent their enemies from taking advantage of Goliath's absence.
  • G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero
    • "Arise, Serpentor, Arise! Part One" has Beach Head complaining to General Hawk, Duke and Flint that they're letting the Joes get soft, going so far as to begin saying, "If I were in charge..." only to be cut off by Flint reminding him of the actual Joe chain of command: General Hawk, Duke, Flint and then Beach Head.
    • In the episode "The Most Dangerous Thing in the World", COBRA's plan revolves around disrupting the Joe chain of command while their leaders General Hawk, Duke and Flint are away by promoting Dial Tone, Lifeline and Shipwreck to the rank of colonel (despite Shipwreck being from the Navy). As COBRA hoped, Joe morale plummets due to the three's idiosyncracies note . A COBRA attack on the Joe HQ almost succeeds until General Hawk arrives to take personal command.
      • When the bogus orders come in, Mainframe contacts the Department of Defense twice but gets an affirmative both times. That's when he calls in Beach Head, the ranking officer present on-base. Despite his confusion (pointing out Shipwreck isn't even in the Army) Beach Head complies with the orders... but also has Mainframe try to get in touch with General Hawk, leading to Hawk's Big Damn Heroes arrival.
  • Transformers
    • The Transformers: Whenever the Autobots are shown preparing to mobilise (especially in the "More Than Meets The Eye" miniseries that began the series), Optimus Prime issues the orders to his lieutenant Jazz, who then assembles the Autobots and informs Optimus when they're ready. In the final part of the miniseries the Autobots prepare to launch a Death or Glory Attack on the Decepticon encampment. Optimus Prime gives a Rousing Speech to the Autobots (and their human allies Spike and Sparkplug) before stepping back so that Jazz can take his place and call for volunteers to step forward. Similarly, while Megatron generally gives orders directly and leads from the front, when he's unable to personally lead a counterattack or defense (e.g. he's overseeing something else or is simply not present) he delegates to Starscream, who then leads the other Decepticons.
      • In the season 3 episode "Starscream's Ghost", a group of Decepticons made up of Cyclonus, Scourge and a trio of Scourge's huntsmen the Sweeps are pursuing the Decepticon Triple-Changer Octane for his actions in a previous episode note . When they arrive at a facility they know is the Decepticon Crypt, Cyclonus orders Scourge to send in one of his Sweeps. Scourge complies and orders one of his Sweeps to investigate, but each of the three declines out of superstitious fear. Annoyed, Cyclonus bypasses the chain of command by threatening to shoot the last one in, prompting all three Sweeps to scramble to get inside. Cyclonus takes a moment to chide Scourge for not enforcing the chain of command (something Scourge agrees with) before ordering him in too.
    • Beast Wars: The episode appropriately named Chain Of Command revolves around Optimus Primal going missing, and the Maximals realise they don't actually know who's supposed to be in charge without him. While the former Predacon Dinobot feels that as the best fighter, he should lead, the Maximals Rattrap, Cheetor and Rhinox instead hold a vote... which does nothing when there's a tie between Rattrap and Dinobot with no way to break the deadlock. Luckily, Optimus is able to send a message putting Rattrap in charge.
    • Transformers: Prime: The chain of command is Played for Drama when Ultra Magnus joins the cast in Season 3. As a strict military man who was the Autobot military commander during the war on Cybertron, Magnus is a firm believer in the chain of command and maintaining proper protocol. Unfortunately, he has difficulty wrapping his head around the fact that Team Prime are True Companions and function more like a family than a military unit, so his attempts at introducing formal military discipline make things very awkward. Notably, Optimus Prime and Ultra Magnus himself both recognise this, and take steps to try to ease Magnus into the team. At the very least, he's the formal second-in-command of the team (prior to this, Ratchet was informally second in command by virtue of being Optimus Prime's oldest friend and closest confidant).
      • On the Decepticon side, the Command Roster is Megatron as leader, Starscream as second-in-command, Soundwave as the communications officer and Knock-Out as chief medic (with Breakdown as Mook Lieutenant). When Starscream becomes a Dangerous Deserter late in Season 1, Airachnid takes his place as second-in-command. During the Season One finale, Megatron has gone missing (he formed an Enemy Mine with the Autobots to prevent Unicron from reviving) and in his absence she decides to take the Decepticon warship Nemesis and leave Earth (and Megatron) behind. She orders Soundwave to set course, but when she attempts to pull rank on him and threaten him into obedience he quickly puts her in her place. In an example of how it's one's position within a chain of command (and not necessarily their rank) that provides authority, despite "merely" being the communications officer, Soundwave's actual role is The Dragon.

    Real Life 
  • Three Kingdoms – Shu, Wei, Wu: When Cao Cao took the Han Emperor into his protection, that granted him the power of the Imperial court. His advisor Xun Yu was made the Director of the Secretariat, a position which was outranked by several others like the Grand General, the Nine Ministers and the Three Excellencies. In practice, the Grand General was Yuan Shao (who remained in his territories in the north and with whom Cao Cao would wage war), the Nine Ministers were restricted to ceremonial duties only (since previous holders of those ranks were partially responsible for turning the Han Court into a Deadly Decadent Court) and the only one of the Three Excellencies was Cao Cao himself. This meant that while Cao was on his campaigns, Xun was effectively the most powerful man in the government despite his comparatively low rank.
    • Xiahou Dun, Cao Cao's trusted right hand man, spent a chunk of his career as Intendant of Henan - a unique position that let him supervise the Imperial court and arrest or execute disruptive members who would normally be untouchable. His actual rank didn't matter: as Intendant of Henan he automatically outranked just about everyone. This is also in addition to his (informal) position as Cao Cao's right hand man, which pretty much ensured Dun's authority was unquestioned.
    • The struggle for Hanzhong in 219 between Liu Bei and Cao Cao is an example of how disruption to the chain of command due to a Decapitated Army can cost the battle. The commander of the defenders was Xiahou Yuan, a veteran general who'd been part of Cao's forces from the very beginning. However, he was killed in action and his second in command Zhang He decided to switch to a defensive stance while he tried to reorganise the army and bolster morale. By the time Cao himself arrived, Liu's forces had managed to dig in and Cao realised it wouldn't be worth the effort to try to force them out, ordering a withdrawal instead. It should be mentioned Cao didn't blame Zhang He for going on the defensive, since the death of the army's commander Xiahou Yuan would've made any further offensive action unwise. Zhang was instead commended for being able to maintain the army's position and preventing Liu from making more gains that he already had.
  • The Malet Coup of 1812 against Napoléon Bonaparte both got as far as it did and was thwarted thanks to the chain of command. General Malet (wearing a general's uniform) forged several documents claiming Napoleon (still retreating from Moscow) had been killed. Several military units obeyed his commands to arrest certain high-ranking officials, believing the orders to be legitimate. However, the coup was thwarted when one general did not recognise Malet and demanded proof of his claims (getting shot and wounded for his trouble) note , and a police general, aware that Napoleon had sent communications dated after his alleged "death" (something Malet couldn't have known) and suspicious as a result, recognised Malet as a sanatorium prisoner and managed to overpower him.
  • The American Civil War:
    • In his memoirs, Ulysses S. Grant mentions a point when he nearly quit the army early in the war. While he was granted command of a small army, his superior General Halleck travelled with him and essentially took over, issuing orders directly to men who were ostensibly Grant's subordinates and reducing his authority to little more to "commander in name only". The experience stuck with him: when he became the general-in-chief of the Union forces, he travelled with General George Meade's Army of the Potomac but took pains not to interfere with Meade's operational command and stuck to giving strategic objectives while Meade was the one who handled how his army played its role.
    • Confederate General Braxton Bragg was infamous for being abrasive, to the point that his subordinates in the Army of the Tennessee almost mutinied twice. This breakdown in the chain of command was so severe that Confederate President Jefferson Davis felt compelled to intervene, at one point even personally travelling to the army himself to investigate. Unfortunately for the Confederacy, Davis left Bragg in command (partially because the only other general who might've been able to do the job was Joseph Johnston, with whom Davis had feuded before). The bad blood in the army's command structure translated to poor morale throughout the entire army, which was at least partially responsible for how quickly their defenses crumbled at the Battle of Chattanooga.
    • Confederate General Robert E. Lee gained fame during the war for his audacious risk-taking, punctuated by often dispatching some of his subordinates on separate missions while he and the main army carried out others. This normally paid off, as his trust in brave and brilliant men like "Stonewall" Jackson and J.E.B. Stuart was returned by Undying Loyalty and success. However, this naturally meant that sometimes he had no clue where they were or what was happening until they rejoined him. Part of the reason the Battle of Gettysburg turned out the way it did was because Stuart was carrying out long-range reconnaissance at the time, and so wasn't able to rejoin Lee until several days after the battle had begun.
    • When Union General W. T. Sherman began his March to the Sea, he deliberately cut off all communication with the Union due to his plan relying on speed and his army living off the land (he'd deliberately chosen routes which would take his forces through the Confederacy's heartland and its crops). Rumors came in that Sherman's forces were in trouble, leading to President Lincoln and members of his administration to ask General Grant if it wouldn't be better for him to order Sherman to retreat. Grant replied that even if he wanted to, he couldn't since even he only had a slight idea of what Sherman was doing. In his memoirs, Sherman admitted part of the reason he'd gone to such lengths was precisely so that he couldn't be ordered to retreat if the administration got cold feet.
  • World War II: During Operation Bodenplatte (a Luftwaffe operation meant to support the concurrent Battle of the Bulge), the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) handed over operational control of several of its forces in the area to the British Royal Air Force (RAF) in order to better respond to the attack. Sure enough, the unified chain of command made it easier for the Allied Air Force to identify where reinforcements were most needed in a timely manner.
  • One aversion to the "reporting to one's direct superior" aspect can happen in hospitals, when someone (often a nurse) finds a problem he or she is not qualified to deal with and tells the lowest-ranking person who is. If that person puts it off too long, the nurse might go up the chain of command until getting to someone with enough spare time to take care of it. After that, the person who ought to have done it generally gets an earful.
  • Not Always Right had an example where a rude customer turned out to be a soldier. A second customer, annoyed by his behaviour, demanded to know if the solider knew a particular individual, and when the soldier angrily replied said individual was his superior the second customer retorted that he was his superior, and that as soon as he got back to base he'd make sure to inform his subordinate of his own subordinate's behaviour. The soldier quickly left.
  • The vassal state system is a version of this on an international scale, as while the vassal state is still self-governing, they still need to follow orders from their overlord lest they be outright conquered.


Video Example(s):


Hitler on following orders

From the documentary "Hitler: A Failure of Strategy", in a speech Hitler outlines his belief in the importance of the chain of command.

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Example of:

Main / TheChainOfCommand

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