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Commissioner Kenneth Hodder thinks about seeking to learn, not teach


In this series of Group Thinkers podcast episodes, our focus is on leadership. Throughout each episode, we’ll chat with leaders in the nonprofit and commercial space to learn more about their careers and the unique journeys that led them to where they are today. 

On this episode, we sit down with Commissioner Kenneth Hodder, National Commander of The Salvation Army, to discuss: 

  • Lessons he has learned as a sixth-generation salvationist that helped prepare him for his role today (4:15) 
  • How his experience living and serving abroad has formed his leadership style (7:35) 
  • Navigating the role of National Commander amidst a global pandemic (11:43) 
  • Mentors who have shaped him (15:47) 
  • The legacy he wants to leave behind (18:40) 

Meet our guest 

Kenneth Hodder Headshot
Commissioner Kenneth Hodder 

National Commander, The Salvation Army 

“One should never seek to teach when you serve internationally. One should always seek to learn.” 

Podcast transcript

Justin McCord: So, Ronnie, over the course of the last year, like our guest today, I've tried to prioritize walking as just a regular area to give me head space and finding times ... Now, it helps, by the way, that I've got a puppy that's a year-and-a-half old who requires the walking, not the head space. But Ronnie, as we get to welcoming our guest today, I'm curious for you, what you do to create head space.

Ronnie Richard: Yeah, certainly walking because, like you, I have a pup who is extremely energetic and she is a little over a year old now, so she's usually kind of pulling me along on the walks, and I'm just along for the ride.

But when I'm not doing that, probably the biggest thing I do to clear head space is go play basketball. In fact, if we had been recording this a week ago, I would have been on video with four stitches over my eyelid because someone's fingernail poked me in the eye. So, yeah, clears my head space in a couple of different ways, I guess.

Justin: Yeah, I was going to say, you actually, you got your head knocked around a couple of weeks ago. So, well, I do think headspace is going to come up as a part of our conversation today. And so, with that, I want to say welcome to Group Thinkers to everyone, I'm your host, Justin McCord. With me is the stitched-up Ronnie Richard.

Today is special for us in a number of ways. We are delighted, as a part of this podcast from RKD, to welcome Commissioner Ken Hodder to Group Thinkers. Commissioner, welcome to the show.

Commissioner Ken Hodder: Justin, thank you so much. It's a delight to be with you two today. I’ve looked forward to this, and I have to say that in response to some of the interchange that you've just had, you are both working far too hard when you take your walks, having to look after a puppy … it just complicates the whole process.

When I walk, I'll go 8 to 10 miles. Just look at the sky, enjoy the breeze, look at the beautiful trees. That's the way a walk should be done.

Justin: Yeah.

Ronnie: It sounds better.

Justin: I agree with you. I agree with you. I agree that … in fact, it was a book that I read recently, a book on different stoic principles. One of them was about prioritizing the stillness. And the author made the point that when, you know, when he goes on long runs or long walks, that he doesn't listen to music and that he does it solo, and that his intent is to listen to the sounds around him, to listen to the leaves, to listen to the wind, that there's something about … If you truly want headspace then, you know, why are you filling that with noise, right?

Commissioner: Yeah, absolutely right. I can understand that. Of course, in my case, when I walk, I do a lot of praying. That is a marvelous opportunity for me to look back on my week, see how God has blessed the work that I've done, how I've been challenged. It helps me to set my agenda for the days to come in terms of my own ministry. So, yeah, I agree with you. If you're going to go take a walk, really focus on the walk. Focus on the things around you, that makes all the difference.

Justin: Yeah, that's awesome. Commissioner Hodder, we're thrilled to have you as a part of our program. And we're currently in a series of conversations on Group Thinkers just around the ideas of leadership. And we're trying to peel back this onion one piece at a time and understand from different people's life experiences and perspectives how they have been formed as a leader.

And so, we're really excited to unpack that with you today. And just as we get our conversation going, I would love to understand, from your perspective as a sixth-generation salvationist, some of the greatest lessons that you've gleaned through your family history and your childhood travels that have helped prepare you for your role within the Salvation Army today.

Commissioner: Oh, that's a terrific question. I think there are two things that come to mind. The first is, in terms of this being a part of my family heritage, in the Salvation Army, we do travel a great deal. Whenever the Salvation Army calls, they'll say, congratulations, you're on your way to X, and it can be anywhere in the world. And I think what that has done for my family over the years, and certainly in my own case, is that it has always made the location of the family home, regardless of where that might be.

We are not tied by geographic location, although of course, we all have our favorite places in the world. But whenever you are able to say, when I'm with the family, I'm home, that builds some strong bonds with your parents, with your siblings, with your children. So, I consider myself blessed in that regard.

I guess the other thing that comes to mind is, although it has been six generations, I think one thing I've learned is, is that the call to minister or the call to serve is always an individual one. It's not a legacy call. I don't serve because my parents did. I serve because God called me. So, you at the same time are more appreciative of family but also more conscious of the way in which you yourself have been called by God to serve his purposes.

Justin: You mentioned the idea of the call, and one thing that we find to be more common than people give credit to is that working with nonprofits in general, whether or not someone is approaching it from a faith-based perspective or not, is that there's almost always a calling.

Many times, folks don't set out on a path of, this is what I'm going to do. They find themselves all of a sudden in a space to where they can reflect back on it and see it as a call. And I appreciate that, that when we're working in the types of ministries that we are, that connection point to thinking about something as a calling can truly be powerful in the way that we approach the work that we do. And so, I appreciate you bringing that up.

One of the calls, not necessarily calling, but one call that you received was a part of your appointments and your officership before you were appointed as Chief Secretary in the Kenya territory. Talk about that experience and what living abroad did and what serving internationally versus serving, maybe, domestically, how that has helped form your perspective on leadership?

Commissioner: It's another terrific question. My wife and I came to believe that God had called us to serve in The Army in 1986. So, after training, we were commissioned in 1988, but it was in 2005 that we got a phone call, as you often do in the Salvation Army, and they said, congratulations, majors, you're on your way to Nairobi. Now, we happened to be living in Portland, Oregon, at that time. Did not expect such a call at all.

But the years that we spent in Kenya―we spent eight of them there, four in Nairobi and four in a little village called Kakamega―were among the most meaningful and delightful of our service. I think we learned a number of things.

The first thing we learned was that wherever you are, you need to buy into that place. Buy into it completely. Because if you ever go into it thinking, well, I'm just here temporarily, or, I can show you how it's done, you will not succeed. You have to convince yourself and, by extension, the people with whom you are working, that you are totally committed to their location and to what their needs are. That's the key to success.

The other thing I think I learned was that one should never seek to teach when you go internationally, that one should always seek to learn. I recall in my first few days in Nairobi, I was convinced, having read all the literature, that I knew exactly how The Salvation Army's work should develop in Kenya. And I got out a big map, and I said, all right, we're going to go here, here, here, and here. And the people around me, who were all native to Kenya, said, Colonel, that will never work. I said, why not? All the demographics say that we can go here. The financial capabilities are there. And they said, you don't grow like a frog. You grow like red ants. And I had no idea what they meant, until they explained that a frog will jump from place to place but never remember where it's been. Where, by contrast, a red ant will go out, find a good place, come back and tell his friends, and it'll create a path to it, which creates another base from which to grow.

Ronnie: That's brilliant, by the way.

Commissioner: Which is brilliant. Which is absolutely brilliant. So, I was totally wrong. They taught me an entirely different way of doing it, and it turned out to be incredibly fruitful.

So, when you serve outside of your own culture, be dedicated to learning.

Ronnie: That's so well said. I've done some traveling in my time in Europe, Costa Rica and Mexico and various places outside of the U.S. And one of the things I certainly always do, I focus on learning about the culture and the people. I'm always struck by both the differences and the similarities that we all have. And, you know, you don't often hear enough about the similarities.

And so, I've been thinking about this in a sense. We're all just one giant community. In the role you're in as National Commander, in 2020 you were chosen and appointed to that, and now you're in charge of this community. And all of a sudden, all of a sudden, the pandemic hits. Can you take us through that time, a little bit coming into that role, and the challenges that came right out of the gate with that and how you handled that?

Commissioner: Sure, sure. Happy to do so. We arrived here in July of 2020 in the midst of what was for everyone a very difficult time, but for the people we served, a time that was, for many of them, unprecedented. Not since the depression had the people that we served, who are at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, faced the kind of situation that they did.

But I think the lesson that I learned most was that if God sets you on a stony path, he's going to give you strong shoes. And really, I've found that in so many different ways people rose to the occasion. We did so as a nation, and certainly we did so as a Salvation Army. Across the nation, people were coming through drive-thru food distribution lines. Most of them never imagined they would ever come to the Salvation Army for assistance. They thought they would just be dropping money in the kettle their entire lives. And here they were, getting food from the Salvation Army.

So, I knew that we were going to be able to do it. I knew that it was going to make an impression upon people. So, I was more conscious, and my fellow leaders were more conscious, of the responsibility that we had to serve, consistent with our history and our legacy and with the immediate need that we saw.

I think the other thing that I learned was that in the midst of all the social tumult of those years, of all the dislocation, of all the questions that were raised about who stands for what and how should that impact the way you approach it, I think I learned that appreciation and compliments should be reduced by tenfold, and criticism should always be taken with a grain of salt. That one should stick to one's mission. That one should always remain true to what you believe you're called to do, and that in the end, that's what's going to see you through any sort of a situation that you face.

The Salvation Army has been blessed by wonderful people working at the front line who have been subject to all sorts of questions over the course of the past couple of years. But they've stayed on course, and they've stayed on target, and the Lord has blessed it.

Justin: Commissioner, you're surrounded by people that are filled with purpose. And as a leader, I can imagine that is a tremendous blessing. It might also add a different layer of tension at times because everyone is so purpose filled, which can sometimes translate into emotional decisions versus rational. And yet you have been appointed and called into this role to lead and are doing it very effectively and admirably from our position so that, you know, as a partner for The Salvation Army in many ways.

I'm curious as you're in this role now, as National Commander, and still faithfully serving as you have for much of your career, who are those people that you now reflect on as mentors that have shaped you and the approach that you take in your position that you serve in today?

Commissioner: That's a terrific question. As I look back on my life, I guess it would be three people who have really had an impact on me. One is my father. My father, who came to this country from England after World War II. England was a devastated nation, and he came here knowing that there was a better life in this country. He came; he worked as a taxi driver, and as he worked as an ice cream soda jerk in a small diner, he worked from the ground up. So, I admire him deeply for his perseverance and his courage. And he also led me to a faith in Jesus Christ. So, he is―was―foundational to my understanding of myself and my own faith.

The second person, I suppose, would be a gentleman by the name of Peter Chong, who was my training principal, after I left the practice of law and entered Salvation Army training college. He was an officer from Korea. And he helped me to understand that the world can be divided up into compartments, but it's best viewed as a whole. That an individual is spiritual and physical and social and psychological. That if you approach individuals as total persons, you're going to have a much better opportunity to really connect with some.

The third person would be an elderly Kenyan officer by the name of Ezquiel Anzaza, who taught me wonderful things about leadership. He taught me things like bottlenecks are always at the top and that when you are criticized, you should be happy because it means that someone's ready to take over for you when you retire. Things of this … and just, he had a wonderful way of expressing these fundamental principles. He told me on one occasion that when the elephants fight, it's the grass that gets trampled. Those sorts of things stick in my mind and still are formal the way I try to lead today.

Ronnie: Those are some brilliant sayings; I absolutely love that. Commissioner, as you're ... so we just, you know, we kind of reflected back on some leaders and mentors who've shaped you over the years. As you're thinking forward, just kind of thinking, what do you want your legacy to be? What do you want people to remember about you? And as they're 20, 30 years from now telling similar anecdotes, what do you want to be known for, I guess?

Commissioner: That's a fine question. I don't want to be known for success. I don't want to be known for provenance. I would simply prefer to be remembered as someone who is faithful. The Lord never speaks of success. The Lord only speaks of serving faithfully. And if that's what people remember of me, if that's what my family remembers of me, that will be great, so far as I'm concerned.

Justin: Commissioner Hodder, I really think Ronnie and I would want to continue this conversation for the rest of the day, and mainly because we keep jotting down things that you're saying as idioms and phrases and little soundtracks that we want to carry with us, that you are filling our cup up as a part of this conversation, and we're so thankful for your time as a part of this.

Commissioner: Well, listen, it's a great pleasure to talk with the two of you today. The Salvation Army is so grateful not only to the two of you for the Group Thinkers podcast, but certainly to RKD, that you help us to convey what the army is to the public, and the public responds to that. I believe that the Lord is blessing it. So, I do want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for everything you do to help us.

Justin: That is too kind, and we are very appreciative on behalf of RKD and Summit Marketing and the entire RKD family. I can assure you, we don't talk about this a lot, but we see it as our high calling to take up the high calling of those that we serve. And so, that includes The Army. And so, our opportunity to do that through our work brings great purpose and meaning to us. So, please know how much we enjoy the partnership and how much Ronnie and I have enjoyed spending time with you today.

Commissioner: I've enjoyed it enormously. I owe you lunch. Please come by national headquarters whenever you wish. And we serve a great meal. Love to have you.

Justin: We will look forward to that. Will make that happen.

Commissioner: Great, thanks so much, guys.

Justin: Thank you. And to our listening audience, if you want to check out additional episodes of the podcast, you can do so on RKD's website as well as through our social media platforms. You can listen to it; you can watch it. Be sure to check out other episodes. So, look at to see a full list of those.

With that, we'll close up shop on this episode. Again, our appreciation and thank you to Commissioner Kenneth Hodder, National Commander of The Salvation Army. And we look forward to seeing you all down the road. See you next time.

Commissioner: Thanks, guys.

Justin: Group Thinkers is a production of RKD Group. For more information, visit Special thanks to our production team, including the talented Ryan Mellinger for his work on mixing every episode. Also, a shout out to the content team that helps pull together research and guests, puts the marketing efforts behind Group Thinkers, Suzanne, Ronnie and others for their work on this and every episode of Group Thinkers.

RKD Group

RKD Group is North America's leading fundraising and marketing services provider to hundreds of nonprofit organizations, including hospitals, social service, disease research, animal welfare, rescue missions, and faith-based charities. RKD Group’s omnichannel approach leverages technology, advanced data science and award-winning strategic and creative leadership to accelerate net revenue growth, build long-term donor relationships and drive online and offline engagements and donations. With a growing team of professionals, RKD Group creates breakthroughs never thought possible.

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