When Abraham Lincoln said, ‘You can be anything you want to be,’ Americans, and eventually everybody everywhere, lifted their sights. Nowadays anybody can aspire to be a leader, and nearly everybody must lead sometimes.
Lord Simon McDonald spent over four decades in HM Diplomatic Service. Sir Simon joined the British Diplomatic Service in 1982 and served in Berlin, Jeddah, Riyadh, Bonn, Washington, and Tel Aviv, and in a wide range of jobs in London. He served as the British Ambassador to Berlin from 2010 to 2015. He was the Prime Minister’s Foreign Policy Adviser and Head of Foreign and Defence Policy in the Cabinet Office from 2007 to 2010. From 2003 to 2006 he was British Ambassador to Israel. His government career culminated with him being Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, and Head of the UK’s Diplomatic Service. He is Master of Christ’s College, Cambridge.
In his first book, Leadership: Lessons from a Life in Diplomacy, Lord Simon McDonald shares his observations from working in close quarters with ministers, diplomats and leaders – on some of the most complex issues faced by our world.
In this interview, I speak to Lord Simon McDonald, Former Ambassador & Head of HM Diplomatic Service. We discuss the nature of leadership, how diplomats work to resolve challenging and complex situations, and what his life in diplomacy can teach us all about leading.
Q: How did you learn what it takes to lead?
[Lord Simon McDonald]: I learned from the best, and early in my career I had bosses who, without ever having that specific conversation about being a mentor or role-model, were both of those things. In London and in Saudi Arabia, I worked with exceptional people who embodied the very best virtues of public service, who knew what they were trying to do, could explain what they were trying to do and who could enthuse others- including me- in their efforts.
The strongest early-career leadership example for me was my first Ambassador in Saudi Arabia (I must disclose, he was also my father-in-law!). He was only in Saudi Arabia for around 2 years, and we had various objectives as an embassy which he wanted us to hit, and we hit them all. Our objectives were political, commercial and defense related- he explained to the team how we all fitted in, and importantly, how we all made our personal contribution to these wider efforts. We got on and we did it. Although it may look controversial in retrospect, he led the agreements of the biggest defense contracts the UK had ever achieved to that point. I am convinced we only achieved that because of his leadership.
Q: What can we learn from diplomats?
[Lord Simon McDonald]: The clearest thing about being a diplomat is the knowledge that you aren’t in control. The problems you’re dealing with are huge – with multiple players and facets. Nobody involved in diplomacy can kid themselves that they are in charge, or in control. As a diplomat, the issues you are dealing with are complicated and – ultimately – impossible for a single person to wrestle with – you need other people, it’s a team-profession.
There is no such thing as one-sided victory in diplomacy, perhaps in war there is, but not in diplomacy. You are always, or at least should always be, mindful of the other side. You should always be thinking – what’s their base? What’s their bottom line? What do they have to achieve which- if they don’t- won’t allow me to achieve anything? So, compromise, listening, and mutual help are keys to diplomacy and probably key in other walks of life too.
Q: How do you adapt your leadership to different geographies and cultural contexts?
[Lord Simon McDonald]: It helps a diplomat immensely that he or she is posted in foreign countries. When you are living somewhere else, you know that you’re not central to that place, and so it’s obvious that your historic approach will not work – you’re in a different environment. If you just stick with your home country or city, these differences may escape you, but when you are somewhere else, you learn, you figure these things out very quickly because otherwise you get nowhere You also have to adapt your understanding of the structures of leadership. In Saudi Arabia for example, they have a monarchy. It’s a huge royal family, and everyone is below that family in terms of clout in the country. There’s a cultural norm of deference- and also a cultural norm of deference to age such that the older you are, the more experienced you are, the more say you have in any given situation. That applies more widely than just the royal family – in all Saudi families, the oldest generation is the one that has the greatest say, and that’s very different to the United Kingdom.
Q: How should we best understand power?
[Lord Simon McDonald]: Power is the ability to get things done, to have your way and to make people do things they perhaps didn’t want to do – such as pay taxes or go to war. In diplomacy, you learn the essence of power and in a country like Saudi Arabia, that essence is much more concentrated than in the United Kingdom. Right now, Mohammed bin Salman (the Crown Prince) is supreme, and literally has the power of life and death. This one man can decide, in great detail, how money is spent, and he can adjust budgets because he wants to. He doesn’t need to consult anyone else and can spend enormous amounts of money on vanity projects- perhaps buying a painting by Leonardo da Vinci or building a new city on the Red Sea coast. In Saudi Arabia therefore, it’s obvious where the power is. Studying the history of the country however, you realise that even a supreme person must watch their backs. All Saudis remember that in 1975, King Faisal, a good and wise king, was assassinated. All his successors have known that if there’s unhappiness, especially close in the heart of the family, that they have to watch themselves. Even in an absolute monarchy therefore, there are checks and balances. In the UK, power is very much more diffuse, but there is still a concentration of power around government – and that’s why there’s so much media attention on the government who, with their decisions, can affect every Briton’s life.
Q: is it harder to be a leader now?
[Lord Simon McDonald]: It’s tougher being a leader now, in 2022, than it was in 1982 when I joined the Foreign Office. Leaders are examined much more closely, and constantly, now than they were in the past. When I was in Germany as a young diplomat in the 1980s, the Chancellor used to disappear for two-weeks every year for his health. He was a big man, and needed to lose weight, so he’d go off and nobody really commented on his absence. That couldn’t happen anymore. The media also rewards leaders who appear the most in pictures and content, and so naturally this tends to the more charismatic ends of the leadership spectrum – and in my observation, the leaders who flourish in the new environment are not always properly prepared. They look ready for prime time, but they often don’t have the cv, experience or character to lead, especially in difficult circumstances. In the UK recently, our leaders have emerged very quickly, mostly without a solid record of achievements, and they burned, and burned out, in the media spotlight.
Q: Politically, do we need to change the way we choose our leaders?
[Lord Simon McDonald]: First of all, the parliamentary system at the end of 2022 worked for the United Kingdom. Leaders who were trouble, for whatever reason, were removed from office within the laws of the system. Today, in November 2022, politics in the United Kingdom feels much more on an even keel than earlier in the year – and that is because of our parliamentary system. If we had a presidential system, it would have been very, very difficult to course correct before the next general election or presidential election. You saw a textbook example of that in the United States. Donald Trump’s presidency was a rollercoaster ride from beginning to end, and even though there were successful impeachments, there was no removal from office because that’s so very difficult. People in the United States didn’t have the same mechanisms as we did, in the United Kingdom, to get rid of him.
Inside the British system, party leaders have been chosen by the wider party membership, and while that system has limitations, I’m convinced it would be wrong to go back to the smoke-filled rooms of the pre-1960s, where a very small group of senior, unnamed characters decided among themselves who would be Prime Minister. The 20th century has been better than what preceded and succeeded it. Parliamentary parties are deeply knowledgeable of the fact that their political future depends on getting the right person, so there is an incentive at least to choose the best.
Q: How important is diplomacy?
[Lord Simon McDonald]: Diplomacy is cheaper than defence, it is an essential insurance policy for any country because problems headed-off before they become conflicts is cheaper (in all senses) and that is desirable. Problems can be solved through diplomacy before people get killed – and I saw that many times in my career. Problems which are solved, of course, get much less publicity than problems that go wrong. I remember working for Jack Straw – at the end of that time we spectacularly had the Iraq war of course but the year before there was a nuclear showdown between India and Pakistan, and two of the world’s nuclear powers came very, very close to launching nuclear devices. It was because of diplomacy (in which the UK played an important part) that a huge nuclear crisis was averted.
[Vikas: Can we examine the Russia-Ukraine war through this lens?]
[Lord Simon McDonald]: There was of course, a failure of diplomacy because the war broke out. The President of Russia was absolutely determined to absorb Ukraine, and he felt he had the backing of his people to do this. He, and his people, did not accept the post-cold-war settlement of the early 1990s. When it’s something fundamental like that, outside intervention can be as well intentioned or well-informed as possible, but it can’t overcome that basic passion.
I think Putin miscalculated his war and has miscalculated every important aspect of this war. He underestimated the resolve of the international community. He overestimated the capacity of Russian forces and crucially he underestimated Ukraine. Because of those factors, he’s clearly now losing the war in Ukraine.
Q: What would be your advice to the next generation of leaders?
[Lord Simon McDonald]: Leadership can be learned from the good, and the bad. Frankly, it’s much more pleasant to learn from the good – so I’d urge people to seek out role models and mentors- they can show you how things are done, how you make an impact on what you care about, and how to inspire. Your role models can help you orient and prioritise – you need to drive toward something. You need goals to avoid just meandering – and really good leaders will help you find your own goals, the things you care about, and how to achieve them.
Listen, observe, and ask questions – that’s how you cope with the bad days and failures which will inevitably come on your journey. That’s just as important as learning about how to cope with the good times.