Born in Scotland in 1899, Coutts served as a flying officer in the Royal Air Force. He was commissioned as a Salvation Army officer in 1920 and served variously in pastoral, administrative, training and literary appointments in England and Australia before being elected General on 1 October 1963, having secured 30 of 49 votes. He assumed command on 23 November.
One of the more controversial decisions under Coutts' leadership was the formation of The Salvation Army's first pop group, the "Joystrings", which appeared on television and in night clubs and cabarets, once again breathing relevance into Salvationists' use of music.
A scholarly, self-effacing man, Coutts was the model of courtesy whose thoughtful arguments were often phrased as highly polite suggestions. Coutts served until 1969 and died in 1986, aged 87.