Soldier and State: Officership, Leadership, and Society

Nearly 60 years ago, political scientist Samuel Huntington analyzed military officership in terms of what he called the “distinguishing characteristics of a profession”:  Expertise, responsibility, and corporateness.  This discussion of “Officership as a Profession” formed a chapter in Huntington’s seminal work, The Soldier and the State, which is widely and justifiably considered to be one of the most important studies of civil-military relations ever written.  The book is at the center of “civ-mil” curricula at service academies and war colleges to this day. But for all of its prominence, The Soldier and the Statehas been largely absent from conversations on leadership development in the armed services.  This absence is unfortunate, as the framework of expertise, responsibility, and corporateness is remarkably applicable for understanding and assessing the development of military officers as leaders today.

To understand why this is the case, its necessary to establish what Huntington meant by each of the three terms he used. Noting the centrality of a specific skill set in any profession, he defined expertise as “specialized knowledge and skill in a significant field of human endeavor…acquired only by prolonged education and experience.”  The mastery of skill, he noted, endows the professional with a special responsibility. He held that “[t]he essential and general character of his service and his monopoly of his skill impose upon the professional man the responsibility to perform the service when required by society…The professional man can no longer practice if he refuses to accept his social responsibility.”  Ultimately, Huntington describes how the “lengthy discipline and training necessary” to attain professional expertise and “the sharing of a unique social responsibility” among members of the military both necessitate and create corporateness: “A sense of organic unity and consciousness of themselves as a group apart from laymen…manifests itself in a professional organization which formalizes and applies the standards of professional competence and establishes and enforces the standards of professional responsibility”.

For military officers, all three of these characteristics are uniquely intertwined with and manifested in leadership.  This is because officers are by definition leaders, and they must continually take on ever-greater leadership roles in order to ensure professional progression.  Successful officers start their careers leading small teams and, if they remain in their service long enough, eventually assume oversight of vast organizations.  At each stage of this progression, officers must focus, to varying degrees, on developing their expertise, responsibility, and corporateness.  In considering the roles and expectations of officers of various rank, however, it is clear that the development of each characteristic is respectively emphasized during a different career phase.  That is, while officers must possess and grow each of the three characteristics throughout their service, they should generally be focusing more on expertise as junior officers, responsibility during their mid-career years,  and corporateness as they move into senior leadership.  The reasons for this become clear when one considers Huntington’s description of how the three characteristics apply to the officer’s profession.

The primary obligation of military officers to society lies in how well they determine the appropriate use of force and make decisions in the interest of the the nation and those who serve it in uniform.  These decisions must adhere to American ideals.


Military officers’ expertise, according to Huntington, is based in “the direction, operation, and control of a human organization whose primary function is the application of violence.”  This organizational control includes “(1) the organizing, equipping, and training of this force; (2) the planning of its activities; (3) the direction of its operation in and out of combat”.  Importantly, Huntington goes on to emphasize that this expertise is distinctly the officer’s for the precise reason that it is an expertise in leadership: “It must be remembered that the peculiar skill of the officer is the management of violence, not the act of violence itself”.  Functioning at the tactical level and executing assigned leadership duties for the first time, it is the junior officer who must concentrate first and foremost on the development of this expertise.  Without significant growth in the technical competence necessary to lead in the particular specialty or branch to which the officer has been assigned, he or she has no function or purpose within the organization. While expertise will continue to grow with time, becoming both broader and more refined as one rises in rank, the most drastic gains must take place within the first few years of commissioning; otherwise, the officer  will not be promoted and will not be able to continue building over time on the foundation that was established during these junior years.


Just as the military officer’s expertise is distinct, so too is the responsibility to employ it for highly specific ends:  “Mastery of the skill entails acceptance of the responsibility…The officer corps alone is responsible for military security to the exclusion of all other ends.”  After amassing experiences and skills for a decade or more, officers can generally be considered to be technical experts, and their developmental focus turns to the scale of their responsibilities.  This is largely due to the expansion of operational scope and managerial competencies to which they must successfully adapt at this phase in their careers.  Rather than directly overseeing small teams, officers at this phase need to rapidly master the ability to coordinate and oversee subordinate leaders who are, in turn, directly involved in small team leadership.  At the latter end of this career phase, officers will often be the senior representatives in the field, carrying ultimate responsibility for the completion of the mission, the conduct of an entire unit, and the security goals or interests of the nation at a specific place and time.  Oversight of a specific sector in which many tactical elements are operating at once is the primary role of these officers, and their newfound breadth of responsibilities must be mastered if they are to succeed and advance.


As stated, the role of the officer, with its distinct expertise and responsibility, both creates and grows from a unified consciousness of the professional community: “The officer corps is much more than simply a creature of the state. The functional imperatives of security give rise to complex vocational institutions which mold the officer corps into an autonomous social unit”.  By the time officers attain Flag or General rank, they have developed unquestionable expertise and shown the ability to hold responsibility in challenging circumstances for the security of the nation.  Leadership of the service, or a significant component thereof, then becomes the focus.  The running of a military organization is in the hands of these officers, and hence their commitment to corporateness is paramount:  They must safeguard the institution itself, in both its ability to accomplish its mission and its very existence as an entity with a certain set of standards and practices.

Civil-Military Relations

In this way, the characteristics of expertise, responsibility, and corporateness form a continuum that can and should serve as a template for leadership development in the officer corps.  While all three characteristics need to be present in every officer, individuals and supervisors can and should look to this structure as a guide for areas of emphasis in officer professional development over time:  Junior officers must spend the bulk of their time becoming experts; mid-grade officers must employ and manage that expertise in an expanded scope of responsibility; senior officers must apply the lessons learned from decades of responsibly applying their expertise in order to lead the organization itself, ensuring cohesion within and appropriate representation and support from without.

In drawing this formulation out of The Soldier and the State, its worth noting again that Huntington was not intentionally proposing a leadership development model, but providing an analysis of civil-military relations.  The question of why such a model emerged from the book bears some examination. How does the military leader’s relation to broader society change as that leader progresses through their career?

As stated, junior officers spend the majority of their time developing and employing a new skill set by leading military personnel in the field.  It follows then that their primary obligation to society lies in how well they do so. This entails, most importantly, the judicious and appropriate use of force and the making of field-level decisions in the interest of the security of the nation and those members of society who choose to serve it in uniform.  Critically, these decisions must always adhere to American ideals.

In the middle phase of officers’ careers, when responsibility is the major focus of leadership development, their obligation to society lies in their ability to assume a wider scope of supervisory duties in order to ensure an operational outcome.  Their primary obligation is rooted in the reality that some national security interest—in other words, some interest of society at large—will be directly affected by their ability to lead a complex operation and achieve success.

Finally, senior officers, focusing on corporateness, dictate the conduct of an entire military entity and its role in society.  Their obligations include proposing a budget to spend society’s money, crafting a strategy to keep society secure, and functioning within society’s governmental and political bureaucracy in order to guide their organization into the future.  The very nature of a military enterprise, and its ability to accomplish its society-given mission set, is in their hands.

By law and principle, military officers are never leaders of society, but they are indeed always leaders in and for society. They must develop as military leaders as they progress through their careers; in doing so, they also develop in their role as leaders on behalf of the nation.  This is why Huntington’s analysis of the military’s relation to civil society produced a model of leadership development that officers should still look to today.

[Photo: Flickr CC: DVIDSHUB]


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