Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it,” William Shakespeare writes of an executed rebel in “Macbeth.” Today’s leaders, however, often struggle to embrace an equivalent vision of a dignified exit from political life when their time comes.
Jacinda Ardern is the rare leader who is choosing to leave the stage, not to be pushed off it. New Zealand’s prime minister said Thursday that she had “no more in the tank” after five years in power and would not seek reelection. Unlike leaders who go on too long, who are forced out by rebellious colleagues, rejected by their own parties, turfed out by voters, refusing to admit they lost elections, perennially plotting to return or resort to autocracy to cling onto power, Ardern’s stay in power will be enhanced by the leaving of it.
Her self-awareness is on brand for a politician who became a progressive global icon while Donald Trump-style ego populism swept the globe. Her leadership during Covid-19 and after mass shootings at two mosques in 2019 won Ardern admiration far from New Zealand.
A cynic might argue that she simply saw the writing on the wall: Ardern’s popularity has ebbed and her Labour Party trails in the polls amid rising crime, high inflation and falling home prices. But there would have been time to mount a comeback before the general election that she called for October.
The price of power for Ardern, 42, has been arduous. She’s faced abuse and threats linked to her gender and relative youth. She has a young daughter and wants to marry her partner; spending time with family isn’t just the classic politicians’ face-saving excuse here.
For many presidents and prime ministers, the ambition and drive that got them to the top means that they struggle to contemplate voluntarily ceding power. This truism led 20th century British parliamentarian Enoch Powell to note: “All political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.”
In 1987, British PM Margaret Thatcher said she hoped to go “on and on.” Three years later she was gone, forced out by a revolt in her own Conservative Party after years in power made her regally remote and a growing electoral liability.