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Our Opinion: New Zealand's prime minister exports a lesson for all political leaders on knowing when 'it's time'

On Thursday, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern made an unexpected announcement: She’s resigning, with plans to step down no later than the first week of February. What does a resignation speech from New Zealand’s head of state mean for those here literally halfway around the world?

One could be forgiven for thinking “not much.”

What’s notable, though, is that it is all too rare to find an example of an iconic leader voluntarily stepping down from the mantle of political power with no obvious ulterior motive.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has decided to leave office. She became a global icon of the left and exemplified a new style of leadership. Just 37 when elected, Ardern was praised around the world for her handling of the nation’s worst-ever mass shooting and the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic. But she faced mounting political pressures at home and a level of vitriol from some that hadn’t been experienced by previous New Zealand leaders. Still, her announcement came as a shock throughout the nation of 5 million people. Ardern told reporters in Napier on Thursday that Feb. 7 would be her last day as prime minister.

She described her decision-making process in remarkably frank terms for a politician of her stature: “With such a privileged role comes responsibility — the responsibility to know when you are the right person to lead and also when you are not. I know what this job takes. And I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice. It’s that simple.”

Simply put, though not simply performed, at least for many elite politicians. That goes especially for American ones, who traditionally have a hard time calling it a day when the time is right.

Ms. Ardern never seemed to lack the grit for doing the job. She led her country admirably through the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic and a national vaccine rollout, and like many national leaders across the world took some lumps from constituents (as well as violent threats from extremists) when she had to make the tough, quick decisions demanded by a once-in-a-century public health crisis. She also kept a steady hand on the wheel through multiple disasters in her five-year stint, including New Zealand’s deadliest mass shooting and the White Island volcanic eruption, both occurring in 2019.

Whether you agree with or even follow Ms. Ardern’s politics, her exit moves suggest a wisdom that should be fundamental for leaders everywhere but too often is absent. Part of the responsibility that comes with political leadership is knowing when to step aside. Knowing that holding onto power might not be what’s best for you or your country. Knowing when is best to make space for new blood. Or, as Ms. Ardern simply put it, knowing when “it’s time.”

Ms. Ardern gained international prominence in 2017 partly because of the young age at which she was elected New Zealand’s prime minister. She was 37 — the youngest head of state in the world. Now, five years later at age 42, she has the prudence to know when and how to say “for me, it’s time.” We would cheer to see such prudence from American national political leaders. The median age of a member of Congress is 60 and trending older. If either of the presumed front-runners for the presidency were elected, it would mark the third time in a row that America elects its oldest president ever.

This isn’t about age, per se, and it’s not a screed against incumbency, either. What it’s about is integrity — the integrity required of powerful leaders to know when to call it a day vs. what happens to the integrity of our public offices when that wisdom is ignored.

We’d love it if there were prominent examples of that wisdom to cite in America, but right now it seems we’ll have to settle for the best example being imported from New Zealand.

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