Emily Rafferty, president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, announced last week that she was stepping down after ten years as head. Ms. Rafferty got it right – after some time as a leader this time ought to be brought to a close. There’s no clock to signal the moment is right to get out; there’s no chime to sound the end has come. But ten years – a decade as a leader – likely is as good a span as any for most leaders in most situations to call it quits.
Some years ago I wrote a book titled Bad Leadership. As I was writing the book I realized how relatively frequently people begin as good leaders but, after some extended period of time, become bad leaders. Juan Antonio Samaranch, former head of the International Olympic Committee, was such a leader. And so was William Aramony, former head of the United Way of America. As I wrote about both men, I realized that during their prolonged periods of maximum power and authority something went wrong. Both men had led their organizations for some 20 years, roughly the first half as good leaders and the second as bad leaders.
The reasons for going bad vary, of course. Moreover none of this is to say that leaders necessarily deteriorate after some number of years. But it is to suggest that the frequency of such a trajectory is unsettling. And it is to suggest that in the second decade of the 21st century, when the world is changing at a famously rapid clip, consideration should always be given to how long a leader should lead.
Leaders in business are by no means immune to this general rule. But leaders in government are even more vulnerable to abusing their office simply by clinging to it for too long. Robert Mugabe has been president of Zimbabwe for over 25 years. Hun Sen has been prime minister of Cambodia for nearly 30 years. Vladimir Putin has already been either President or Prime Minister of Russia for 14 years and is promising, threatening, to stay in place for many more years to come.
This tendency to become addicted to power is in evidence also in Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Erdogan has “only” been in office 11 years. But he has started to clamp down on his opponents, harden his views, and hold on to his position with the rough equivalent of dear life. What’s especially interesting about Erdogan is how clearly he demonstrates, yet again, this tendency for leaders to deteriorate over long periods of time.
Pari Dukovic observes in The New Yorker that while Erdogan is now an autocrat, “it wasn’t so long ago” that he was a “different kind of politician.” Not so long ago he spoke of unity and tolerance, was a moderate Islamist, smashed corruption, and advanced free expression. But then, Dukovic writes, “the Prime Minister’s office began to transform Erdogan.” He became intolerant of dissent, cultivated a climate of fear, built patronage networks, attempted to dictate private habits, and developed a personal agenda to perpetuate his political power.
Sad to say the case of Erdogan is typical. Too much power held for too long a time tends to be unhealthy – tends to go bad. It’s why there ought to be a law – ten years in any position of power and you’re out.