In Discussion with Sir Peter Birkett:

Leading the Way to Excellence

Q: The world has seen many great leaders throughout history from Julius Caesar, Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Winston Churchill to name but a handful. What main qualities do you think made these men great leaders which transcended the differences in era and culture?

PB: These great leaders had clarity of purpose and total confidence in their own abilities to lead their people. They stood firm in a crisis – none of them were quitters! They also had the ability to put aside their own weaknesses when the situation demanded it in order to achieve their main objective.

Q: We are living in very different times to those of the leaders above. Do you think the basic tenets of great leadership have changed to accommodate the digital age? 

PB: All of the leadership skills of the above still stand solid in today’s world, however, the digital age does not demand the same physical effort or sacrifice as in previous eras. Today’s leaders require mental stamina of a different type owing to the fact that the world is brought to you, rather than you having to go out to fight the world.  Today’s battlefields are platforms which are less about physical or spiritual prowess and more about online presence, engaging with an audience of watchers who you will not always get to meet in person.  This requires a special sensitivity to the diversity of personalities with whom you will be engaging.

Q: What characteristics of leadership in young people should teachers and parents be aware of, which could be encouraged and developed?

PB: Young leaders today should be trained in the development of emotional intelligence. Focus and organisational skills are vital too. In our digital age, communication is key to leading and encouraging people to engage with your vision.  

However, owing to the reduced attention spans of modern day audiences and the digital systems we now work with, language should be taught to be succinct and on point to successfully project the message. Taking responsibility for one’s decisions is also important for young leaders to learn. This will engender respect and encourage a returning audience.

Q: Some of the qualities in great leaders have been described as:  the ability to inspire trust and to create a clear and compelling direction for people to follow. What other qualities would you add to these?

PB: Self-belief is an important quality while tempered with an understanding of human nature and all its strengths and frailties, especially now that much of our working world is online and misunderstandings are common across digital platforms. Determination to see the situation through to a conclusion and the ability to listen to others’ opinions and ideas and embracing them as necessary are important qualities.  Keeping a cool head in a crisis is also vital!

Q: What advice would you give overall to anyone entering a position of Leadership in the Education Sector today?

PB: Preparation is key before taking on any Leadership role.  Know your subject and your staff and develop the ability to think ahead to potential challenges that may crop up.  A  good leader is someone with excellent skills of judgement and foresight, and these skills should be developed daily.

Sir Peter Birkett is an entrepreneur and educator with more than 35 years experience in the education sector.  He has held many roles during his long and illustrious career including an advisor to the DFE, Chair of an Education Charity Trust and as Director of several National Boards.  He was appointed CEO of the GEMS Group in the UK and Europe.  His ground-breaking achievements in Further Education and the Academy Movement resulted in him being honoured with a Knighthood by the Queen in 2012 and he has continued to work tirelessly to ensure higher standards of education for all pupils throughout the UK.

He is also Founder and Strategic Advisor of Highgate Hill House School, an award-winning independent special educational needs school in Devon.