What do Nelson Mandela, George Washington and Roman statesman Cincinnatus have in common?
Each walked away from political power.
The contrast with dictators who cling to power for decades is obvious. And, says Michigan State University political scientist William B. Allen, leaving office voluntarily “amounts to a humble submission to the authority of the society above the ambition of the ruler … [and] an index of democratic character.”
In 1999, when Nelson Mandela voluntarily stepped down after one term as South Africa’s president, he followed in the footsteps of Roman statesman Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus (519–430 B.C.E.), who on two occasions renounced near-absolute emergency authority to return to his farm.
The first president of the United States, George Washington, set a similar example when he declined to run for a third term, declaring that two terms were enough for any president. (The U.S. Constitution was later amended to formalize a two-term limit.)
Peaceful transitions of power, adds George Washington University political scientist Michael Cornfield, contribute to a nation’s political health.
Since Mandela’s passing in December 2013, reformers in over 60 nations have participated in the Open Government Partnership, an organization that works to make governments more transparent, more accountable and more responsive to their own citizens.
The United States honors the South African leader’s legacy through the Mandela Washington Fellowships, a program that brings young African leaders to the U.S. for intensive executive leadership training, networking, and skills building, followed by a presidential summit in Washington.
This story was first published on May 27, 2015.