"The Most Effective Organization in the U.S.":
Leadership Secrets of the Salvation Army
Robert A. Watson and Ben Brown
Crown Publishers, 256 pages, $25

The Salvation Army is America's largest charity, but it is only when tragedy hits home that the evangelical movement's real message breaks through the fog.

For all the money raised by the Army, for all its publicity, and especially for all that the public "knows" about this group, its internal budgets are generally meager. Officers—as ordained ministers are called—get a weekly allowance, housing, a car, and money for uniforms, but the living is generally not luxurious.

Army founder William Booth, a pawnbroker's son who grew up in mean circumstances, was not an exponent of any "prosperity gospel," and neither are his followers.

How, then, does an organization keep good people, maintain a level of service, and earn the respect of millions, including President Bush, without huge payrolls? A recent national commander of the organization, Commissioner Robert Watson, attempts to explain this leadership phenomenon in "The Most Effective Organization in the U.S.," written with USA Today veteran Ben Brown. What's more, Watson and Brown propose that the basic traits of the Army's management and "branding" styles can translate into the realm of secular business.

On one level, this book should not be a surprise. With Jesus, CEO having spawned various imitators, the notion of applying rules from an evangelical movement to a corporation wrestling with market-share woes isn't that far-fetched.

As is the fashion with business volumes, this one—whose title comes from management guru Peter F. Drucker's upbeat assessment—is peppered with imperatives to "engage the spirit" or "lead by listening." In trying to shift the ethos of an evangelical mission to "brick and mortar" businesses, the authors shoehorn the Army's essence into the kind of advice a business manager can use.

Will It Translate?

But readers may pause when pondering the application of the Army's management style to a startup retail business. Both the nature of the Army and the nature of its people are different from your average middle manager. Commissioner Watson is a prime example.

As he admits in the book's introduction, Robert Watson grew up in modest circumstances in Goldsboro, North Carolina. He was the son of a father who succumbed to drunkenness rather than seek work as the Depression wound down. Salvationists provided the Watsons with food, clothing, and a place for young Robert and his siblings to feel accepted. The boy responded to the Army's programs and preaching, joined the church as a member, and then committed himself to its ministry.

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It is difficult to read Watson's story without feeling a lump in one's throat. Having seen him in action for several years, I know Watson is a sincere, straightforward person who clearly cares for his officers, employees, and others in his charge.

But how many people go into business with that kind of concern? The men who founded and built Detroit's auto industry were not altruists: they wanted to build cars and make money. It took union organizers—and no small quantity of spilled blood—to make these captains of industry treat their workers decently. Some of the recent dot-com entrepreneurs tried to keep worker satisfaction high on the list of priorities, but the "bring your dog to the office" and "free massage" perks may have been partly responsible for the demise of many Internet firms.

The people who enroll as officers in the Army have done so with a sense of lifetime commitment. You're in until you retire, or die first. "I'll never leave the dear old flag, 'tis better far to die" is the refrain of one Army song heard as new officers are "commissioned" (the Army's word for ordination). Until recently, Salvation Army officers could marry only a peer (it's easier to move a married couple when both are in your employ). Those who broke this rule were asked to leave, sometimes unkindly. To be an officer in the Army is a full-time job: no moonlighting allowed, no freelance writing on the side—unless the income (and copyrights) go to the movement. (Although Watson completed this book during his retirement, when such rules no longer apply, he abided by them.)

These qualities are rarely found in private industry. If anything, the reverse is coming to the fore: job-sharing allows people to balance work with home duties. Bill Clinton and Al Gore each resonated with a segment of the "soccer mom" bloc by promoting legislation extending job leave (albeit without pay) to care for newborns or aging or ill family members. In 2000, Gore even proposed a study that would look into making commuting times shorter so working parents could spend more time with their children.

Watson and Brown recommend creating a cadre of dedicated workers who will do a lot with a little. But this advice bumps up against a society that, before September 11, was more concerned with enjoying the fruits of its labor than with tilling hard soil. The challenge these authors face is for managers to become almost evangelical in their fervor for a corporate mission, to transfer that enthusiasm to the workforce, and to celebrate those who rejoice in their jobs, while allowing for personal creativity and innovation.

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Such thinking is a sharp contrast to the "straight from the gut" approach of outgoing General Electric chairman Jack Welch. He propagated the theory that a company should dismiss the lowest 10 percent of performers every year, pruning the ranks of dead branches. I suspect Watson would recoil at such a strategy, preferring to guide poor performers onto different or better paths.

In fact, Watson and Brown may have been exceptionally prescient in the timing of this book. After the terror strikes of September 11, American business is struggling with massive layoffs, and workers are being asked to do more with less.

In the United States, the Army has withstood the overwhelming demands of the Great Depression and weathered schism and spinoffs. (The Volunteers of America sprang from the Army's American branch when national commander Ballington Booth, son of the Army's founder, refused a recall to London.) More recently, the Army was under fire for trying to preserve its hiring standards while also seeking "faith-based initiative" federal funding. That criticism eased only when the Army proved so important to relief efforts after the terror strikes.

The book's best examples of entrepreneurial vision are those of Salvationist laity and clergy who go the extra mile to fulfill their mission; its weakest are when Army imagery is superimposed on commercially oriented businesses. Some juxtapositions are ironic: Watson and Brown cite the story of a dance-band leader, although the Army has traditionally steered its adherents away from nightclubs. Others, such as the story of employee-friendly ISP Mindspring and its founder, Charles Brewer, ring closer to the Army's culture.

Not every lesson in this volume is easily transferable to private business, but many churches could learn quite a bit about social ministry from the Salvation Army. What's more, Christians might smile a bit more when they see an Army kettle—no Santas, please!—and know that the people behind it are accomplishing great things year round.

Mark A. Kellner was a Salvation Army church member from 1982 to 1999, and worked briefly for the organization in New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C.

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Related Elsewhere

The Most Effective Organization in the U.S. is available at Christianbook.com.

The Salvation Army's official site includes basic information, bios on historical figures and news releases.

For more on Salvation Army history, see issue 26 of Christian History. Another Christianity Today sister publication Christian Reader adapted one of the articles on Catherine Booth.

Lauren F. Winner reviewed several books on Salvation Army history in Christianity Today's sister publication, Books & Culture. Her article, "From Drum-Bangers to Doughnut-Fryers | Material culture, consumerism, and the transformation of the Salvation Army," appeared in the magazine's September/October 1999 issue.

Historian Diane Winston chronicles the Army's shift in emphasis from evangelism to social services in Red-Hot and Righteous: The Urban Religion of the Salvation Army (Harvard, 2000).

Previous Christiany Today articles on the Salvation Army include:

Dismantling the Salvation Army | In maintaining integrity, Salvationists got the Boy Scout treatmen. (August 27, 2001)
Shelling the Salvation Army | If William Booth's church could handle sticks and stones in the 1880s, it should withstand the recent barrage of hateful words. (July 20, 2001)
Moscow Bans Salvation Army | Embattled ministry appeals judicial ruling. (Nov. 11, 2001)
Russia Recognizes Salvation Army as a Religious Organization | Officials say that doesn't restore status to the Army's Moscow branch. (Feb. 28, 2001)
Moscow Salvation Army Rejected | Without official recognition, ministry and the elderly suffer. (Feb. 13, 2001)
Salvation Army Closed in Moscow | Moscow court decision turns city into a 'legal never-never land' for Christian charity. (Jan. 11, 2001)
Still Red-Hot and Righteous | The Salvation Army's International Congress meets outside London for the first time since its founding. (July 12, 2000)
Saving Bodies, Rescuing Souls | Chechen Muslims find Salvationist care has compassionate accent (Apr. 11, 2000)
Salvation Army General Seeks Refocus on Gospel | Newest world leader faces modern challenges (June. 14, 1999)
Did Somebody Say $80 Million? (Dec. 7, 1998)
Salvation Army Youth Spell Out New Methods (Mar. 3, 1997)

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