With every choice comes a consequence. But for some individuals in positions of great power, this basic truth takes on epic proportions. From devastating wars that alter the world for generations to struggles for change that reshape societies, some of the most momentous shifts in world history can be traced to individual people.
The use of power has fascinated historians and political scientists since the Greek historian Herodotus. During the Renaissance, Niccolò Machiavelli considered the amorality of the exercise of power in his book “The Prince.” President Abraham Lincoln weighed how power affected the individual when he said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
As we’ve seen throughout history, power can emanate through the force of persuasion and the spoken word, and not necessarily from the barrel of a gun. Mohandas Gandhi advocated nonviolent protest that led to the expulsion of the British Empire from India in 1947. Martin Luther King Jr., who led the civil rights movement in the United States in the 1960s that still fights for justice and equality. These are the most important moments of the civil rights movement.
24/7 Wall St. created a list of 50 of the most powerful leaders of all time. An argument can be made that every American president since 1945, as well as every leader of the former Soviet Union since the end of World War II, should be on the list. Some of those men do appear on the list. But in the interest of diversity and the understanding that power is relative to the era in which it is exercised, we have included leaders from the distant past as well as those not in government, such as religious, inspirational, and civil rights figures.