Two women are in transition – Angela Merkel and Nancy Pelosi. Angela Merkel, German Chancellor, has been in office for over 12 years. Nancy Pelosi was speaker of the US House of Representatives from 2007 – 2011; and now, she is about to be re-elected back into that position after a hiatus when the Republican party was in the majority. Merkel is stepping down convinced it is time for her to do so. She has had a terrific run as one of the key leaders on the global scene. No one is challenging her, but her political capital is more limited than it was 5 years ago and while she could continue she has determined that now is the right time to transition out of this senior position. A successor has been elected.
Pelosi is pressing to be elected as speaker of the house again and it looks like she will be re-elected Speaker. Merkel is 64; Pelosi is 78. Consider what I am offering here by way of observation without thinking in terms of political party or ideology. Even if you do not agree with the political positions of these two women, there is no argument that they have been extraordinary leaders – very effective in their very different leadership positions. Both, I might add, are masters of securing and sustaining a consensus across a rather wide and diverse constituency – holding their respective parties or coalitions together. They both knew and still know that they are only as good as they are if they are able to sustain a big tent. Neither is an ideological purist; and both know what it means to work with and deal with those who may differ in very fundamental ways.
I commend Angela Merkel in her decision to leave. It was the right time; she is managing the transition brilliantly, in a way that will allow her successor within the party to establish her voice and presence and secure the political capital and leverage that she will need to be effective post-Merkel. But Nancy Pelosi is insisting that she will remain as leader of the House Democrats. There were those who were insisting that it was and is time for a change – that Pelosi had her run and full credit to her for being the first woman Speaker, but that now it is essential that the Democratic Party have a new face to both lead the Caucus and work with a Senate and a White House that is controlled by a different party. For a time it seemed that this newer [and younger] voice would persuade Pelosi that she did not have the necessary support to be the Speaker. But, as of when I am writing this, it seems that she is on course to be the elected.
My question: is Pelosi doing the right thing? Again, consider this without reference to whether you like Pelosi or agree with her politics. I am looking at this question from the perspective of institutional effectiveness. Should she be yielding to a new generation of leadership within the Party? I have been inclined to think that she really should step down. She has had a great run; but new leadership is urgently needed – because of who is in the White House and with the thought that new faces are needed as the Democrats anticipate the next presidential and House elections. But then the other side of the argument observes that what the Democrats urgently need is someone with mastery of the legislative process – meaning, of course, someone who can out-leverage the current US President. And it would seem that this has already happened with one round of negotiations. Sure, Pelosi is 78 years old; but maybe for the next two years, at least, she is the kind of person that is precisely what is needed.
The main point, though: do not overstay. Whether you are 64 or 78, leave when it is time to leave. It is possible to leave prematurely when one should stay and persevere through a challenging time. But, the other problem is to overstay: to cling to a role or remain beyond one’s effectiveness. Leaving well means leaving when it is time to leave . . . which also means leaving in a way that positions your successor to be effective.