Exit Strategy: Pepi II and the Problems of Longevity

Flickr. Staying in power too long can bring disastrous consequences for leaders.

Flickr. Staying in power too long can bring disastrous consequences for leaders.

Queen Elizabeth II overtook the 63-year, 226-day reign of her great-great-grandmother Victoria in September to become Britain’s longest-tenured royal, having first ascended to the throne in 1952. That’s an impressive length of time, no doubt. But the record for world’s longest-ruling monarch belongs to the pharaoh Pepi II, who came to power in ancient Egypt more than four millennia ago (4293 years, to be precise) and remained in power for a full 94 years. Pepi became pharaoh as a toddler, at just four years of age, and kept the throne until his death at 98, an extraordinary but not unheard-of lifespan for an ancient Egyptian.

Records from Pepi’s reign are scarce -- not a shock despite its almost century-long duration, given that it took place near the start of recorded history. (He was more ancient to Cleopatra than she is to us.) But flashes of the man -- or rather the boy -- have come down to us. For example, when he was eight, living out adventure fantasies much like modern children, Pepi dispatched his chancellor to Nubia in the south to bring back gold and ivory. The official reported back the news that he had captured a pygmy, which inspired a breathlessly excited letter from the young king with instructions to ensure the safe transport to the court of this exotic hostage. The chancellor was so proud of his correspondence with the king that he inscribed the letter verbatim on his own tomb, evidence of Pepi’s veneration by his contemporaries.

But Pepi is probably best known for presiding over the end of the Old Kingdom, the succession of glorious early dynasties in ancient Egypt that established a political structure and artistic style that lasted for centuries and which gave us the Great Pyramids at Giza. This all collapsed in the final years of Pepi’s reign, ushering in the First Intermediate Period: approximately 125 years of chaos which saw the splitting of Egypt’s unitary kingship and military struggles between the resultant fragments of the kingdom. Though these dark times were eventually redeemed by the glories of the Middle Kingdom, now the subject of an amazing exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the precise cause of Egypt’s fall into disorder is a much-debated topic. The rise of a competing political order of provincial nomarchs (think troublesome and ambitious barons) and the so-called 4.2 kiloyear event -- a global climate anomaly that produced a catastrophic low point in the Nile’s inundation levels with what were thought to be dramatic consequences for the agricultural economy at the heart of Egyptian society -- are both believed to bear significant blame.

So too, in the opinion of many historians, does Pepi’s unusual longevity as king. As a nonagenarian more than 4,000 years ago he would have been extremely enfeebled. Indeed, it is almost a certainty that at the very least he would have been in tremendous dental pain, given the poor oral hygiene (exacerbated by sand-laced bread) that plagued most people at the time of all classes. The entirety of ancient Egyptian society was embodied by the pharaoh, whose most important task was to lead his army into battle personally. Pepi could not at the end of his life have fulfilled this role credibly, which would have likely undermined both the military and political strength of the state. Furthermore, a king reigning too long can subvert the orderly process of succession, as Pepi’s near-century on the throne seems to have done.

Knowing when to step down -- when to go out on top, even -- is a crucial skill and a sign of strong and wise leadership. More often the decision to retire at the seeming peak of a career is taken by athletes or entertainers who know that their profession intrinsically favors the young and prefer not to undergo their inevitable decline in the spotlight. From Sandy Koufax, who retired at 35 as the greatest left-handed pitcher in baseball history, to Greta Garbo, who left the silver screen also in her mid-30s, to Jerry Seinfeld leaving network television at the peak of his eponymous show’s success, some of our more perspicacious celebrities have opted to shave a few years off their time in the limelight in order to preserve a pristine legacy.

This kind of far-sighted but painful decision is made less often in political or business contexts. Given that experience often enhances wisdom and knowledge, many leaders in decision-making positions feel that their retirement would be detrimental to their organizations. But businesses or political bodies need new energy and new ideas -- and even if their aging leadership remains vigorous and innovative, they still face a pressing need to cultivate the next generation of executives. (That pesky succession problem, it seems, plagues us as much as it did the ancient Egyptians.) Leaders need to be cognizant of their own weaknesses and also that there may in fact be a benefit to the self in changing one’s career or taking a step back. In a political context, the need for change can be even more fundamental, though it is a rare leader with the vision to acknowledge this. Not surprisingly, the elderly Pope Benedict XVI’s announcement that he would step down in the best interests of the Vatican, was the first such decision by a pontiff in 600 years. George Washington not only declined to be a king, he insisted on setting a precedent of two terms as a measure to protect the Republic, a precedent later codified into the Constitution.

The corollary to the lesson of Pepi’s perverse reign is the need to cultivate a successor who can both ease the burden of the aging leader and then take over when the time is right. Alexander the Great -- who also wore the pharaoh’s crown -- had conquered most of the known world by the time he was 30. But when he suddenly fell ill in Babylon, he allegedly and famously opted to leave his empire to “the strongest.” The result was a struggle for power and the fracturing of his empire. Leaders who care about their organizations, about preserving their own legacies, will focus their energies on grooming and training a worthy successor before the waning days of their time in office.