I have been involved with many institutions where someone clearly overstayed his or her welcome in a certain position. That person should have retired, transitioned, or resigned years (maybe even decades) earlier, but found ways to maneuver such that he or she could stick around, with the majority of folks involved in the organization becoming deeply resentful and the organization itself having its growth stunted.
Tomorrow Pope Benedict XVI will resign, marking the first papal resignation in hundreds of years (and then only because there was more than one Pope at the time). When Benedict the Pope, who will soon turn 86, was elected in 2005, he was the oldest Pope elected since 1730. Pope Benedict has had a pacemaker for years, and recently had a routine operation to replace its batteries. While religions often stress tradition, it must also be noted that, although people now live longer due to advances in medical care and knowledge of healthier living, there are also medical conditions that can greatly inhibit the ability of an elderly person to perform the full-time duties of a religious spiritual or communal leader.
After announcing that he was leaving the Jewish Funders Network, Mark Charendoff argued that there should be term limits for Jewish professionals. He offers a number of benefits:
• “Breathe new creativity and vibrancy into our agencies”
• Avoid falling “into a rut, into a certain way of doing things, of thinking, of acting, after being in any job for too long”
• We can “move those years of experience and expertise into another agency”
• “Allow a greater opportunity to import talent from agency to agency where it is merited”
• “It is sometimes hard to feel that accountability if there is no longer any danger of being held accountable”
• They make room for new executives to “recruit new senior lay leadership, opening up space on boards that may not have seen enough diversity in background or in thinking”
• They “force lay leadership to deal with an uncomfortable topic— succession planning. The long-term health of our agencies could benefit from a more sustained focus in this area”
• Open opportunities for middle management to grow into higher positions. “And we may find more opportunities for women to fill what have traditionally been male dominated roles”
• “We’ll save money. CEO salaries rise over the course of their tenure and well they should”
American political history has many such examples of leaders who held on to the reins of power too long. Republican Representative Joe Cannon served 46 years in the House of Representatives from 1873-1923, including a stint as Speaker of the House from 1903-1911. As Speaker, he earned the nickname “Czar Cannon” because of his dictatorial manner and opposition to every progressive measure, even resisting the formidable efforts of President Theodore Roosevelt. He was finally overthrown as Speaker by a coalition that included members of his own party, but so much necessary legislation was needlessly held up due to his destructive authority.
The Senate today further illustrates the case for term limits. Republican Mitch McConnell, who entered the Senate in 1985, has been the Minority Leader since 2007. As of September 2012, Republicans in the Senate had filibustered 375 bills during the Obama Presidency, far and away a record. In December 2012, Senator McConnell achieved the dubious distinction of becoming the first Senator to filibuster his own bill; he proposed a vote on raising the debt ceiling, but then blocked it when the Democrats did not object to the vote. On the other side, Democratic Senator Harry Reid, who has served since 1987, has been the Senate Majority Leader since 2007. Senator Reid has acceded to most of this obstruction by not pushing for a revision of the filibuster rules, and as a result everything in Congress is stalled, including the Farm Bill that regulates foreign aid and food stamps in addition to agricultural policies.
The American public bears some of the responsibility for this. A January 2013 Gallup poll reported that three-fourths of Americans favor term limits, although they also re-elected at least 90 percent of congressional incumbents in 2012. (Part of this may be due to gerrymandering, which has made most congressional district races noncompetitive). Americans have always backed term limits in theory, although no term limit legislation has ever passed both houses of Congress. The one national term limit, under the 22nd Amendment which was ratified in 1951, limits a President to two terms in office (and no more than 10 years in the event of taking over the Presidency before running for the presidency). Oddly, this amendment passed as a reaction to the 4-term administration of perhaps the most popular president in history, Franklin D. Roosevelt.
There are those who point out that term and tenure limits do not always make sense. For example, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt was frustrated by the “nine old men” of the Supreme Court who had declared so many New Deal laws unconstitutional, he tried to enact legislation that would force the retirement of elderly judges. However, as critics pointed out, the oldest justice on the Court in 1937 was 81-year-old Louis Brandeis, who was perhaps the most progressive justice. Nevertheless, as our population ages, and as the prevalence of debilitating conditions such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, stroke, and complications from cardiovascular and other diseases increases among the elderly, lifetime tenure can impede the workings of an organization. In addition to health concerns, term limits are compelling due to the corrosiveness of entrenched power, best summarized by Lord Acton, who in 1887 wrote, with reference to the Catholic Church: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
We would be wise to consider policies that limit the terms of our religious as well as political leaders. When our institutions don’t provide term limits, leaders might assume the wisdom and humility to transition themselves for the welfare of the organization and broader community just as Moses actively brought Joshua into leadership to prepare the community for the next stages of their journey (Deuteronomy 31:7-8). Succession planning honors the community but it can also honor one’s own legacy, coloring one's memory with the virtues of humility and selflessness.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder and President of Uri L'Tzedek, the Senior Rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of "Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America."