What do Nelson Mandela, George Washington and a Roman consul have in common?

Nelson Mandela smiling (© AP Images)
Nelson Mandela voluntarily stepped down after serving one presidential term. (© AP Images)

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.”

Portrait painting of George Washington (The De Young Museum)
Two terms were enough for George Washington. (The De Young Museum)

The first president of the United States, George Washington, 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.)

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.

Peaceful transitions of power, according to George Washington University political scientist Michael Cornfield, contribute to a nation’s political health.

The United States honors Nelson Mandela’s legacy through the Young African Leaders Initiative’s Mandela Washington Fellowships, a program that brings young African leaders to the U.S. for intensive executive leadership training, networking and skills building, culminating in a high-level summit in Washington.

A version of this story was first published on May 27, 2015.