Joe Biden has now passed the 100-day mark in office, and is surprising many pundits with his energy and his capacity to make pioneering decisions for his country. And present in many of these conversations is the issue of his age. He's 78, making him the oldest person ever sworn in as president of the United States. Never mind that his opponent, former President Donald Trump — who mocked Biden relentlessly during the campaign as "Sleepy Joe" — isn't that much younger.
All of this raises an interesting question: Is leadership compatible with aging? Think, for example, about former French President Charles de Gaulle, whom the French removed from power in 1969 for no longer being in tune with the suddenly shifting society. Under what conditions can one be a leader at an advanced age?
Raising these issues might seem discriminatory, but the answers could also help identify the very essence of leadership.
French martyr Jeanne d'Arc, 19, Martin Luther King, 39, former U.S. President John F. Kennedy, 46, Napoleon Bonaparte, 51, Steve Jobs, 56… All these major figures died young or fairly young, and together, they contribute to our collective associations of leadership with the ardor and energy of youth (or relative youth).
And yet, we also have the figure of the wise old man. In visual arts, Spanish painter Pablo Picasso remained creative until his death at 91. Likewise, in business, Warren Buffet, 90, is still a master in finance, despite his age. Antoine Pinay gave political advice at nearly 100, as did Nelson Mandela, the revered father of his nation, up to his death at 95.
But what can be said about those who cling to power despite physical and cognitive demise? They remain powerful, but are they still leaders? The declining capacities of former French leaders Georges Pompidou or François Mitterrand have often been highlighted. And there's another danger to that decline: Cases where aged leaders are manipulated by their entourage, and further discredited as a result.
Former Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika during a political meeting in Algeria, in February 2016. — Photo: Shcherbak Alexander/TASS/ZUMA
An extreme and emblematic example is that of former Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who stayed in power for nearly 20 years despite his poor medical condition at the end of his tenure. Another is Mahathir Mohamad, 95, the world's oldest head of state or government when he resigned last year as prime minister of Malaysia, admitting that he was finally feeling the burden of his years in office.
One wonders what Paul Biya, the 88-year-old president of Cameroon and the target of wild rumors about his repeated absences, thinks about all this. Power, after all, is not the same as authority. The former must be earned and maintained. The latter is something that is recognized and accepted.
These people may have some power still, but they have lost the authority that makes them leaders
The reluctance to relinquish power can be seen too among company heads, former government ministers, university professors and others. These are people who, despite being well past retirement age, are convinced that the world cannot run without them. They dole out honors and positions only to loyalists, appointing them presidents of associations or foundations, or as members of directorial boards. And in holding on to power, they paralyze the organizations in which they operate and stifle any desire for change or openness.
Again, these people may have some power still, but they have lost the authority that makes them leaders. When title replaces inspiration, when status becomes more important than vision, then power is only a pale substitute for leadership.
When a former leader is no longer appreciated, when he or she is not elected (as Joe Biden was), no longer being listened to or respected, then it's imperative that the person knows when to leave. Doing so requires humility, reflects a sense of humanity, and is an acknowledgement of frailty. But that too is part of leadership.
Doing the opposite — clinging to one's throne or position — risks stirring up annoyance, anger, criticism and leads, ultimately, to a loss of respect. No, leadership is definitively not about age. It's about the capacity to stay connected to the world and to be visionary. Understanding this would prevent some powerful people, no matter how old, from losing credit for wanting to "remain at all costs."
*Isabelle Barth is an associate professor of management sciences at the University of Strasbourg.
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