1933 was a volatile time in Germany, and this created a problem for newly elected president Franklin D. Roosevelt. The United Stated needed to fill its top diplomatic post in Berlin – the ambassadorship – but FDR was having difficulty finding someone who would take the job. As Erik Larson describes in his book, “In the Garden of Beasts” a diplomatic posting to a European capital should have been a plum. But recently appointed German chancellor Adolph Hitler was changing Germany in ominous ways. The result was that no one seemed to want the post. Some candidates with genuine political star power had turned it down, and this left FDR with a problem.
The man who finally got the job was William Dodd, and on July 5, 1933, Dodd left the United States with his family to serve as the American ambassador to Germany. At the time of his appointment, Dodd was a history professor at the University of Chicago who certainly had adequate credentials for the post. He had been a friend of former president Woodrow Wilson. He was a democrat active in Chicago politics and had campaigned for FDR. And, he spoke German. There was an urgency to fill the post, and Dodd was available but not initially willing. His name came into circulation, and on June 8, 1933, he received a presidential arm-twisting via the telephone. Dodd succumbed, and the Senate expediently approved his nomination the day it was sent to the chamber.
A sense of foreboding about Germany had certainly already taken root in the U.S. by 1933, but depending on the community, what fueled it was very different. The business community was fretting about the loans it had made to Germany. The nation had suffered crippling inflation in the wake of World War I, helping set the political table for Hitler’s rise to power. FDR and the State Department made it clear that a priority for Dodd was persuading Germany to make good on its loan commitments. By 1933, things were clearly looking up economically, but there were other dark clouds forming over the German state. Hitler’s political makeover of Germany was often violent, and persecution of Jews was already underway.
Dodd and family arrived in this tempest, literally getting a front-row seat to all the political drama. The ambassador’s residence was within walking distance of the U.S. Embassy, Gestapo headquarters and the Reich Chancellery. He could not have positioned himself more closely to observe the alarming developments that occurred during his appointment. He met and socialized with senior Nazi part officials. The understanding he gained of the true nature of the Nazis, particularly after its bloody purge in 1934 of its political opponents in what became known as the Night of the Long Knives, convinced him that Nazi Germany was on a dangerous political trajectory. He repeatedly warned his superiors in the State Department about what was going on, but he was largely ignored. The louder he sounded the alarm bells, the more dismissive his own government became. Despite the fact that his foreboding conclusions were correct, he expended his political capital and resigned his post when he realized his government wasn’t listening.
There’s a business lesson to learn from Dodd’s experience: employees that are on the frontline often have the best insight into what is going on, what is working and what needs to change. Everyday, these frontline employees deal with the realities of serving customers through the policies set in the Ivory Tower. Often, these policies don’t make sense and get in the way of success. The folks on the frontline see this clearly, but they have the least authority to make changes. Companies with outstanding service reputations have this in common: they actively listen to the frontline employees and empower them to do something about they things they see are broken.
There’s another lesson here for business leaders that is related to the first: don’t put someone you’re not willing to trust in a position of influence. In fact, where on the org chart does someone belong that you’re not willing to trust? In Dodd’s case, he was worthy of trust and his insights about the Nazi regime’s intentions were dead on. His government should have listened and shared his alarm. But why would FDR post him to Berlin and then choose not to trust his insight? Blame it on expediency. FDR needed to fill the post quickly and Dodd was available. Not only was this lack of trust ridiculous, it was dangerous. If you’re not willing to trust a person you place in a key role, then don’t place them there at all.
When Dodd left Berlin in 1937, he did so quietly, not even notifying the press. Upon his return to the U.S., he told The New York Times that he “doubted if an American envoy who held his ideals of democracy could represent his country successfully among the Germans at the present time.” He died on February 9, 1940, having lived long enough to see the nightmare of Nazi aggression come into full bloom, but before seeing his country enter the conflict.