When Pope Benedict XVI announced that he would abdicate the papacy, he explained that “in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes . . . both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”
By becoming the first pope to resign since the 15th century, Benedict demonstrated a self-knowledge that is incredibly rare among leaders.
Contrast his behavior, for example, with that of New Jersey Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat, who before being forced to stand aside described Newark Mayor Cory Booker, also a Democrat, as a “disrespectful” child for challenging his re-election bid, even though Lautenberg would have been almost 92 when he was sworn in.
It may be a fraught subject, but aging often has enormous effects on people’s personalities and cognitive function. Some leaders can maintain their vitality and abilities into extreme old age, but after enough time in office, a leader’s performance probably will decline, perhaps precipitously.
This is precisely what happens to anyone who spends a long time in senior government positions, because of both the effects of power itself on those who wield it, and the effects of age on every human being.
Power itself has profound, and usually toxic, effects on those who have it. CEOs are so pampered that comparing them with babies is surprisingly illuminating. What is true for a CEO is, in this case, even more true for the men and women who lead nations and can literally have power over life and death. It would be remarkable indeed for any person treated with deference and pampering for years, even decades, to not be affected by it.
The effect of age is equally worrying. Aging can have a powerful and largely negative impact on leaders in three ways. It can greatly increase their vulnerability to illness, shift their personality and decrease their cognitive abilities.
Even beyond the immediate effects of illness, aging can have pronounced effects on personality. Put simply, in general people really don’t mellow with age. Instead, authors Jerrold Post and Bert Park have shown that they tend to become exaggerated versions – almost caricatures – of themselves, with their normal tendencies and patterns becoming intensified.
Finally, and perhaps most troubling, are aging’s effects on cognition. Some of these are well-known. The advance of age tends to weaken recall, particularly of recent events, for example.
Given the potential dangers, the burden of proof should be on aging leaders to justify their continued hold on power, not on those who challenge them. Most leaders are far more dispensable than is generally believed – and certainly far more dispensable than they are likely to believe. Just as important, most leaders who do have an impact do so through poor performance, not brilliance. There are just many, many more ways to be a fool than there are to be a genius.
In the United States, this suggests the need for term limits for all senior officials who cannot easily be removed from office. Term limits have already been imposed on the presidency, of course, but they should be extended to include the Supreme Court, governors, and likely also the speaker of the House.
When the Constitution was written, the life expectancy in the United States was less than 30, so there was no need for any such requirement. The advance of medical technology, however, has made term limits overwhelmingly necessary.
Given the stakes of the decisions made by, for example, presidents and members of the Supreme Court, a 1-in-5 chance that the person making it is suffering from age-related cognitive decline is simply far too large to accept.
The United States government would do well to learn, at least in this case, from the example of one of America’s most iconic companies. Pope Benedict had the humility and self-awareness to realize that he had reached the limit of his physical capabilities.
We can, perhaps, expect that sort of wisdom from a religious leader, but it seems far too much to expect political leaders to willingly follow his example. Right now, though, relying on their willingness to follow his example and recognize their own limitations is all we have.
It is not nearly enough.Mukunda is an assistant professor at Harvard Business School and author of “Indispensable: When Leaders Really Matter.” His Twitter handle is @gmukunda.