In Conversation

Leadership in a Changing World: In Conversation with Lord Simon McDonald


Written by Ben Yardley, International Coordinator


For Civil Service College’s second In Conversation event of the year, Jonathan Pearse (Director of International Partnerships) met with Lord Simon McDonald to discuss leadership, management and Britain’s changing place in the world. Lord McDonald has almost forty years of experience in diplomacy, having served as a Principal Private Secretary to the Foreign Secretary, an Ambassador and most recently as Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Head of the Diplomatic Service 2015-2020.


For the full discussion, see YouTube video at bottom of page:


On making Britain a soft power superpower

Britain’s role in the world will likely not be the same as it was during the 20th century, especially with the shift to a multipolar world. But Lord McDonald is convinced that Britain can still demonstrate global leadership through soft power. In crucial areas including governance, culture, education, science and technology, Britain has the capability to contribute towards solving the planet’s most pressing issues.

He notes three areas where Britain currently excels:

  • Judiciary and the rule of law: One of Britain’s most striking advantages on the international stage, which Lord McDonald calls a “billion-dollar endorsement”, is the respect given to British courts. Many large-scale arbitration cases from across the world are settled in London, reflecting the stability of British institutions and the legal expertise present in the country;
  • Universities and education: The reputation of British universities, which attract hundreds of thousands of students from abroad each year, is another major source of soft power. Lord McDonald also notes Britain’s stellar record of producing startups and tech businesses, which will help to drive the UK forward in the 21st century;
  • Media, Culture and Sport:  From the Premier League to Netflix’s Bridgerton, entertainment created in Britain can draw the eyes of the world. British media outlets are also among the most trusted globally; institutions such as the BBC, Financial Times and the Guardian enjoy a wide audience outside of the UK.


When it comes to addressing the FCDO’s colonial legacy, as highlighted in the recent report from the UCL Policy Lab, Lord McDonald is sceptical of headline grabbing “rebranding” measures such as modernising its premises or changing the name to the Department of International Affairs. Instead, he feels a more effective approach is to focus on the substantive changes that need to be made to how the UK approaches foreign policy.


On managing large organisations

Remaining visible as a leader and building a sense of cohesiveness across a large global organisation is a daunting task. From his first day as Permanent Under-Secretary, Lord McDonald noted a sense of isolation and feeling cut off from the majority of his staff, many of whom worked on different continents and in different time zones.

He identifies the two main techniques he used to stay in touch: a weekly blog and frequent visits to offices around the world. During his time as Permanent Under Secretary, Lord McDonald took time to visit an impressive 124 of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s posts overseas! Lord McDonald carefully used his international visits to complement the Foreign Secretary’s; whereas Foreign Office Minister travel to where global events and alliances take them, a Permanent Secretary can instead visit locations that are given less attention, working hard to make sure British diplomatic staff working abroad feel valued and respected.


On Trump and the future of UK politics

While foreign policy is unlikely to be a deciding factor in the coming UK election, both Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer will be expected to lay out how they plan to work alongside whoever holds the keys to the White House until 2029. Lord McDonald predicts that a second Trump term may look very different to the first, as Trump will have more experience, a loyal team around him and a determination to make his mark on US institutions from day one. A victory for either Joe Biden or Donald Trump will mean very different things for the “special relationship”, and the incoming Prime Minister will need to plan for either possibility.



Lord McDonald is a former diplomat who served as Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Head of the Diplomatic Service until September 2020. He was the last professional head of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, before the department was merged with the former Department for International Development. He has been the Master of Christ's College, Cambridge since September 2022, and in 2023 published a book, Leadership: Lessons from a Life in Diplomacy, detailing his experiences in diplomacy.


Jonathan Pearse MBE began working in Westminster in 1995 as a Parliamentary Assistant in the office of the then Leader of the Opposition Tony Blair. Following the General Election of 1997, Jonathan worked in the Political Office at 10 Downing Street, firstly as a Political Assistant and then as an Assistant Political Secretary to the Prime Minister focussing on party and stakeholder engagement and the government’s legislative agenda in the House of Lords. From 2007 to 2010, Jonathan was a Special Adviser to the Leader of the House of Lords and Lord President of the Council where he worked on all aspects of House of Lords business and political support for Government Peers. Following the 2010 General Election, Jonathan moved to the Leader of the Opposition and Opposition Chief Whip’s Office in the House of Lords as a Senior Political Adviser and Private Secretary. His long experience in both government and opposition covers a wide range of activities including the legislative process, election campaigns and political communications.





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