4 Dangers Of Autocratic Leadership In The Salvation Army

The Salvation Army is modeled after the British Armed Forces…its model from uniform to leadership is very similar.  Officers, when under orders, must move to new appointments based on need and abilities.  When orders are passed down, by and large they are expected to be followed.  This is understood entering a college for officer’s training to become an officer.  Cadets and Officers are expected to submit to authority…but what happens when that authority is abused or misused?  Does that happen in The Salvation Army?  Like any organization or movement, we openly acknowledge that people, even leaders are fallible and are still vulnerable to making mistakes.  But what happens when mistakes go unchecked or unaddressed?  Who holds leadership accountable?

This style of leadership can be useful, especially when decisions must be made and the movement is at risk.  It is most effective when it is used to empower, encourage, validate and serve those that leadership leads… Autocratic or Authoritative leadership can provide a clear, concise direction and vision.  This style is evident not only in a Divisional or Territorial, National or International setting, but it is also evident to some degree in individual corps, harbor lights, ARC’s and other appointments.  Each of these locations autocratic leadership is usually found – and with it at times, abuse of that model can take place.  Please note that I don’t say “will” but I merely leave it open to the possibility.

Power does not corrupt. Fear corrupts… perhaps the fear of a loss of power.
John Steinbeck

Ponder This: 
But what happens when autocratic leadership does fail and/or is abused?

4 Dangers Of Autocratic Leadership In The Salvation Army: 

1.  Disagreement Leads To Punishment disagree
The surest way to corrupt a youth is to instruct him to hold in higher esteem those who think alike than those who think differently.” -Friedrich Nietzsche

In an absolute authoritative leadership model, if followers or those subservient to the leader disagree and are outspoken about it they are punished.  Even in The Salvation Army, this can happen.  New appointments are given or created to mute or limit those voices of dissent.  It must be noted here that our army has many instances in our brief history of dissension among the ranks from the very beginning.  Historically, even in the founder’s day Ballington and Maud Booth were practically excommunicated from the army when they refused to take another appointment away from the U.S.   Thus they left The Salvation Army and began their work as the Volunteers of America.  Understandably there is more to this story, but even then family couldn’t disagree with the authority of the Army without fear of reprisal or punishment.  Does this still happen today if one were to disagree with the current vision or a decision made by leadership?

In the autocratic model of leadership, a chief danger of such a model is the fear of ever having a dissenting opinion because it could be construed to mean one is insubordinate or perhaps lacking submission altogether.  But perhaps there are times when disagreement proves commitment to mission over authority.  By that I mean there are times when boots on the ground understand situations of community needs and the furtherance of the movement far better than those in leadership because they have a front row seat and they have their hands directly in those community pots and engage daily with direct services.

The abuse of the autocratic leadership model begins with a zero tolerance for disagreement and the repaying of such engagement with punishments or reassignment or appointment.

2.  Talent Flees and Mediocrity Remains
exitWhen this abuse is allowed to continue, and it does from time to time, there is inevitably a loss of talent.  By that I mean some within the ranks of soldiers and officers alike might leave.  Why would they stick around when abusive leadership would seem to go unpunished or addressed and instead is rewarded and only those who are completely complicit to that leadership style are given appointments of authority themselves?  In essence an abusive autocratic style will promote the “yes” people, while those with talent (and who had the passion and zeal) but did not always agree might never be rewarded or acknowledged.   What could remain would be a hollowed out version of an organization.  It wouldn’t be the vision that failed but rather the internal issues of the organization that cannibalized itself.

3.  Buy-In Is Limited buy-in
Growth inside fuels growth outside.” – John Maxwell

When abused, autocratic leadership limits the buy-in for the follower or subordinate.  In our Army the buy-in for a soldier at a corps who is not invested in but instead ignored would be grossly limited.  Why would they want to participate or engage in the vision if they were not included in the initial vision casting in the first place, but instead the authoritative officer controlled everything?  The buy-in on such a model is a malnourished form of commitment to those in the corps council and anyone else wishing to make a difference in this movement.

This example is true from the soldier in the corps all the way up to IHQ.
If corps members, office staffs, corps officers, divisional officers, territorial officers aren’t allowed some investment and ownership within the movement and have some say in how it can continue to be relevant and innovative then disillusionment and abandonment could soon follow.    Why waste their time when the decision will be made for them?  Why invest of themselves when they will inevitably be told what to do anyway?

An abusive autocratic system will leave constituent left behind and or abandoned altogether.

4.  Generational Losses
Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way.” — General George Patton

Dictators of militant nations who rule by fear, will eventually have a younger generation growing up in anger and frustration and eventually revolt will ensue.  This is an extreme example, but the iron-fisted autocratic leadership model might bring along a generation or two, but eventually a younger generation will rise up and consider this model to be antiquated and disconnected with reality.  They might become disenfranchised and disillusioned and seek out other ways to serve and be useful in society.  In The Salvation Army, perhaps the style of leadership that was once useful to us as a movement in its infancy is not longer what is needed today.  Some might say if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, but what if it is in some ways broken and in need of fixing (or modifying) but we’re just ignoring the systemic issue because it seems a titanic, daunting challenge?  Could it be that the younger generation is leaving the Church (big C) in general because of disillusionment and inconsistency in leadership and vision?  Is society just the scapegoat?

Could abuses of thesoldiers autocratic or authoritative leadership model be affecting our movement today?     This is a very big question, I know that, but isn’t there a part of you that wonders if we shouldn’t even ask the question in the first place?  Why is that?  Do we fear that if we ask it we might face punishment or be considered “rebels”?  I believe a healthy movement is one who has innovative, creative and outspoken members.  A movement is just that, something that continues moves forward, not backward.  A healthy movement should be one that accepts constructive criticism and takes corrective steps when needed.  A healthy movement is propelled not by unhealthy models of leadership and fear, but by the Holy Spirit prompting and leading His followers onward into the fray.

Can abuses happen in our Army?  Yes, and I believe they still do!  From the lowly corps ministry all the way up, but I do not believe it is the norm and I am hopeful that such trappings can be avoided with prayerful consideration, holy living and servant leadership always at the forefront.

“If we are growing we are always going to be outside our comfort zone.” – John Maxwell

Something more for our Army to ponder today.
To God be the Glory!


The thoughts and opinions expressed here are the writer’s own thoughts and opinions and do not necessarily reflect that of The Salvation Army as an organization and movement…reader discretion is advised.  

10 thoughts on “4 Dangers Of Autocratic Leadership In The Salvation Army

Add yours

  1. I truly think you misunderstood the entire reason for writing this in the first place. There is abuse in the army, and just because you have not experienced it does not mean it doesn’t happen. I think what is most unhelpful is pretending or ignoring its existence at all in ANY organization.

  2. All the Booth’s were in essence powerful autocratic leaders in their own right in a relatively small, emerging organisation. They were young, vibrant, full of excitement and daring/ raring to go. Each were taught to be up front leaders at very early age and were commissioners in their early twenties. Nearly all of them burned themselves out by their mid 30’s and suffered major mental health breakdowns. I dare to say that we would not exist today if it had not been for such people pioneering and establishing at a pace you and I could only balk at. Autocracy has got a place in history at times as it gets things done faster but it certainly has also got the capability to destruct at an equal tempo should there be any dissent. Of course, as stated, there have always been dissenters with the most successful ones knowing exactly when to be actively patient and wait for the right timing and place to make their influences felt and be the change required. (1929 is a classic example of this)

    Take care and blessings

    Rudi Bruinewoud – Major UKTI

  3. What an excellent challenge to us all. I believe you have laid out a good case how autocratic leadership might lead to the use of coercive power; You can get things done quicker but at the expense of relationships. One must be mindful that the possibility exists that rebellion is simply leadership attempting to lead. The best leaders know when to get out of the way and how to grow leadership potential.

    Thanks for sharing.

  4. Sadly I have paid the price of disagreeing with leadership but I live with the belief that ‘where man rules, God overrules’. This has helped me to continue being true to my calling and has been proven over time. Praise God. But it is also a warning for me – to ensure that I do not do to others what has been done to me.

  5. The difficulty isn’t necessarily with strong autocratic leadership. The problem is when they have no vision and lead in a manner which is counterproductive to growth and is ill conceived. The result is poorly planned, short term, “ideas” intended with a one size fits all mentality. Each idea is ramped up for a short period of time until a new leader comes along abandons the initial idea to implement a new plan which is soon abandoned and the cycle goes on. Those who point this foolishness out are ignored. It causes those who must implement this flurry of new programs to become discouraged and look for other ways to minister. Usually finding a different venue in which to serve. We all know that where there is no vision the people will perish. It is indeed prophetic for us today.

  6. How many tipping points of opportunity have we missed for bringing constructive change to TSA’s leadership culture in recent decades? It’s good that concerned and critical minds still produce thoughtful articles such as this. However, an entrenched organizational mindset that “would rather die than change” requires a monumental intervention up and down the movement – especially up. Let us pray for a new work of God in our beloved army.

  7. Thank you for your thoughts. The book Deep Change by Robert E. Quinn addresses what happens when systemic organizational issues are not addressed. On an organizational level deep change begins with individual change. Individual change requires us to reinvent ourselves and will take us on a journey where the path is not always clear. This is a challenge that is not taken very often because it involves suffering risks. The biggest obstacle to making this change is fear. Quinn describes this fear as one that has the capability of being rooted down deep and the potential to do a great deal of damage. It is hard to consider this important component without introducing the idea of fight or flight in a change circumstance. If fear is a deep rooted road-block that hinders change, it is imaginable that the individual will either run from change or stand up to embrace it and evaluate the effects. The alternative to not embracing change will be what Quinn refers to as ‘slow death’.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: