Many of history’s famous world leaders were great men and women who inspired and helped others. But that’s not always the case. Any list of famous world leaders includes some controversial and even infamous figures. Still, these are people kids (and everyone, really) need to learn more about to understand history and our modern world. This list is by no means complete but covers a wide range of well-known world leaders from around the globe.
1. Hammurabi, first king of Babylon
Babylonia, circa 1810–1750 B.C.E.
The sixth king of the First Babylonian dynasty issued a set of laws known as the Code of Hammurabi. These comprehensive laws included one of the earliest examples of an accused person being considered innocent until proven guilty.
Learn more about Hammurabi at Kiddle.
2. Hatshepsut, Egyptian pharaoh
Egypt, circa 1507–1458 B.C.E.
Hatshepsut was the second female pharaoh and was known as a prolific builder. She commissioned hundreds of buildings, statues, and monuments. She also re-established important trade routes and increased the dynasty’s wealth.
Learn more about Hatshepsut at Britannica.
3. Ramses II, Egyptian pharaoh
Egypt, circa 1303–1213 B.C.E.
Historians consider Ramses II the greatest and most powerful leader of ancient Egypt’s New Kingdom period. He lived to be at least 90 and ruled for more than 65 years.
Learn more about Ramses II at Kiddle.
4. Cyrus the Great, founder of the Achaemenid Empire
Persia, 600–530 B.C.E.
Cyrus founded the first Persian Empire, the largest yet seen in the world. He ruled lands from the Balkans to India and generally respected the cultures and religions of the lands he conquered.
Learn more about Cyrus the Great at Kiddle.
5. Pericles, Greek politician
Greece, 495–429 B.C.E.
Under the leadership of Pericles, Athens became a powerful center of the arts, culture, and education. He ushered in the age of Athenian democracy, in which even poor citizens could hold positions in government.
Learn more about Pericles at Kiddle.
Macedonia, 356–323 B.C.E.
Alexander III of Macedon expanded his empire to become one of the largest in history. He was undefeated in battle and was considered one of history’s greatest military leaders. Military academies today still teach his tactics.
Learn more about Alexander the Great at Kiddle.
7. Qin Shi Huang, founder of the Qin Dynasty
China, 259–210 B.C.E.
As the first emperor of a unified China, Shihuangdi (as he was also known) was a ruthless, tyrannical ruler. Nevertheless, he’s remembered today for uniting the Chinese states and establishing a common currency and a standardized writing style. He also started construction on the Great Wall of China.
Learn more about Qin Shi Huang at Kiddle.
Rome, 100–44 B.C.E.
Julius Caesar helped build Rome into a mighty empire, bringing all of Gaul (France) under Roman rule. He made himself dictator of Rome, initiating land reform and granting citizenship to residents of far-off regions of the empire. Members of the ruling elite didn’t trust Caesar, so they ultimately plotted to assassinate him on the Ides of March.
Learn more about Julius Caesar at Kiddle.
Egypt, 69–30 B.C.E.
Cleopatra, one of the most famous female world leaders of ancient times, was the final ruler of the Ptolemaic Empire of Egypt. She had a close relationship with Julius Caesar, bearing him a son. After Caesar’s death, she allied with Mark Antony. When his bid to take over the Roman Empire failed, he killed himself by falling on his own sword. Cleopatra took her own life soon after, and Egypt became a Roman province.
Learn more about Cleopatra at Kiddle.
Rome, 63 B.C.E. to A.D. 14
Augustus was the first Roman emperor. His reign started an era of peace (Pax Romana) that lasted more than 200 years. He formed the Roman Empire, establishing a network of roads and a standing army.
Learn more about Caesar Augustus at Kiddle.
Roman Empire, A.D. 272–337
Constantine is known for allowing Christianity to flourish in the Roman Empire. He built up the city of Byzantium and renamed it Constantinople (today known as Istanbul), making it the new capital of the empire.
Learn more about Constantine at Kiddle.
12. Wu Zetian, empress of China
China, A.D. 624–705
Empress Wu, who ruled for 40 years, was the only legitimate female sovereign of China. Under her rule, corruption in China declined while the culture and economy grew. China became one of the great powers of the world.
Learn more about Wu Zetian at Kiddle.
13. Charlemagne, king of the Franks
Carolingian Empire, A.D. 747–814
Charlemagne united the majority of Western and Central Europe during the Middle Ages. People call him the “Father of Europe,” and the Pope made him the first Holy Roman Emperor. He was strongly in favor of education, though he himself was illiterate, and set up many schools across Europe. He’s one of the most famous world leaders of the Middle Ages.
Learn more about Charlemagne at Kiddle.
England, circa 1028–1087
In 1066, William invaded England, leading the Normans to victory and becoming king. He ruthlessly put down revolts in Northern England, destroying much of the countryside. William I built many castles throughout the country and also ordered a massive survey report known as the Domesday Book.
Learn more about William the Conquerer at Ducksters.
15. Genghis Khan, ruler of the Mongols
Mongol Empire, 1162–1227
Genghis Khan united the nomadic people of Northeast Asia into the Mongol Empire. He was a brutal conqueror, slaughtering entire cities that resisted him. Millions died in battle, famine, or mass extermination under his rule. Despite his fearsome reputation, many respected him for his willingness to share his wealth and other contributions to Mongol society.
Learn more about Genghis Khan at Ducksters.
16. Kublai Khan, founder of the Yuan Dynasty
Mongol Empire, 1215–1294
Grandson of Genghis Khan, Kublai Khan ruled over the Mongol Empire at its largest—it stretched from the Pacific Ocean to the Black Sea, Siberia to modern-day Afghanistan. He founded the Yuan dynasty of China and also built the palace of Xanadu, which Marco Polo visited on his voyages.
Learn more about Kublai Khan at Ducksters.
17. Mansa Musa, Mansa of the Mali Empire
Kingdom of Mali, circa 1300
Mansa Musa was emperor of the Mali Empire in West Africa from around 1307. He left an empire that was notable for its riches and built the Great Mosque in Timbuktu. He is remembered most for his pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324, during which he traveled in a glittering procession with 60,000 men, including 12,000 enslaved persons, all dressed in brocade and silk. He also had a baggage train of 80 camels each carrying 300 pounds of gold.
Learn more about Mansa Musa at Kiddle.
18. Joan of Arc, patron saint of France
France, circa 1412–1431
Jeanne d’Arc was a French heroine who led an army to victory against the English during the Hundred Years War. The English later captured her and accused her of witchcraft, in part because she preferred to dress as a man. She was burned at the stake at just 19 years old.
Learn more about Joan of Arc at Ducksters.
19. Henry VIII, king of England
Henry VIII might be best known for having six wives (and beheading two of them). He was determined that one of his wives give him a male heir. His insistence on divorcing his first wife led to a split with the Catholic Church. Henry VIII then became the first leader of the Protestant Church of England.
Learn more about Henry VII at Kiddle.
Ottoman Empire, 1494–1566
The longest-reigning sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Suleiman dreamed of taking over Europe. His ambitious siege of Vienna ultimately failed and started a rivalry between the Ottomans and the Habsburgs that lasted for centuries. Suleiman expanded the empire in the Middle East and North Africa, though. He led a golden age, reforming the legal system and becoming a great patron of the arts.
Learn more about Suleiman at Kiddle.
Elizabeth I, Henry VIII’s daughter, took the throne after a tumultuous time in English politics. Her half-sister Mary ruled before her and attempted to return the country to Catholicism so forcefully she was known as Bloody Mary. When Elizabeth I was crowned, she vowed to make England Protestant again, but she was relatively tolerant. Her 44-year reign was a time of stability. She never married and was known as the Virgin Queen.
Learn more about Elizabeth I at Kiddle.
Russian Empire, 1729–1796
The longest-ruling empress of Russia, Catherine II helped expand Russia and led it as it became one of the greatest European powers. She was a progressive leader, establishing a national system of free schools, including the first school for girls. Catherine loved literature and the arts and built a collection of more than 38,000 books.
Learn more about Catherine the Great at Kiddle.
23. George Washington, first president of the United States
United States, 1732–1799
The first president of the United States is definitely one of the most famous world leaders of all time. After leading the American colonies to victory in the Revolutionary War, Washington was unanimously elected to be the new country’s first leader. Despite his fierce fight for U.S. independence, Washington himself had hundreds of Black slaves throughout his life. He ordered many of them freed upon his death and the death of his wife.
Learn more about George Washington at Kiddle.
24. Thomas Jefferson, U.S. president and author of the Declaration of Independence
United States, 1743–1826
The third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson became one of the most famous world leaders in history by writing the Declaration of Independence at the age of 33. As president, he completed the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the country. Like Washington, Jefferson was also a slaveholder. He fathered multiple children with the enslaved Sally Hemings.
Learn more about Thomas Jefferson at Kiddle.
25. Shaka Zulu, Zulu chief
Zulu Empire, 1787–1828
Shaka founded southern Africa’s Zulu empire. When his father died in 1816, Shaka took over the Zulu, who were fewer than 1,500 at the time. They were a small clan, but Shaka reorganized the army by re-arming his men and reorganized how they fought. His army fought other clans and incorporated the survivors into the Zulu. In a year, the Zulu were four times greater than they were before. As Shaka increased the number of Zulu and decreased smaller tribes, it impacted the coastal and inland areas as the clan structure broke and many died. In 1827, his mother died and Shaka became psychotic. He was killed in 1828.
Learn more about Shaka Zulu at Kiddle.
26. Tecumseh, Shawnee chief
Shawnee, circa 1768–1813
Tecumseh was a powerful Shawnee chief who formed the Native American Confederacy to resist U.S. expansion onto native lands. He was a gifted speaker and traveled widely to promote his cause. Tecumseh joined with the British in the War of 1812, ultimately dying in battle.
Learn more about Tecumseh at Kiddle.
Napoleon was a brilliant French military commander who became the emperor of France after taking over much of continental Europe. After a disastrous foray into Russia, Napoleon was eventually captured and exiled to the island of Elba. He escaped and retook control of France, only to be defeated by an alliance of his enemies at the famous Battle of Waterloo.
Learn more about Napoleon Bonaparte at Kiddle.
28. José de San Martín, liberator of Argentina, Chile, and Peru
San Martín was an Argentinian general who helped lead Argentina, Chile, and Peru to independence from Spain. After a successful military career in Europe, he returned to his homeland to join local revolutionary movements. He has become a national hero in the countries he fought to free.
Learn more about San Martín at Kiddle.
29. Simón Bolívar, leader in the South American Independence Movement
Bolívar is one of the most respected and famous world leaders in South America. He led Venezuela, Ecuador, Panama, Peru, Colombia, and Bolivia to independence from the Spanish Empire. Bolívar hoped these countries would become allies in a nation known as Gran Colombia, but they began to fight among themselves. Deeply disappointed, Bolívar stepped down as president in despair in 1830. Today, Bolívar is widely revered as El Libertador, a great national hero throughout South America.
Learn more about Bolívar at Kiddle.
United States, 1809–1865
The 16th president of the United States is best known as the man who freed the American slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. He led the nation throughout the Civil War and was tragically assassinated just days after it ended. He was shot at Ford’s Theatre by Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth.
Learn more about Abraham Lincoln here.
31. Victoria, queen of England
United Kingdom, 1819–1901
Victoria’s reign lasted 63 years, longer than any British monarch until Queen Elizabeth II’s reign. She became queen at age 18 and oversaw a massive expansion of the British Empire. The Victorian era was a time of great industrial, scientific, and political change. Queen Victoria married Prince Albert and had nine children. Despite eight assassination attempts, she was generally beloved by her citizens and will always be among the most famous world leaders in history.
Learn more about Queen Victoria at Kiddle.
32. Sitting Bull, Lakota supreme chief
Lakota Sioux, circa 1831–1890
As Supreme Chief of the Lakota Sioux nation, Sitting Bull led his people to a stunning victory over U.S. troops at the Battle of Little Bighorn. In response, the United States sent many more troops, eventually forcing the surrender of many of the Lakota Sioux. Sitting Bull himself surrendered in 1881, then performed in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show for a time. When he returned to Standing Rock Agency in South Dakota, local Indian Service agents feared his influence. They ordered his arrest, and Sitting Bull was killed in the ensuing struggle. He is remembered today as a symbol of Native American resistance movements.
Learn more about Sitting Bull at Kiddle.
Russian Empire, 1868–1918
Tsar Nicholas II was the last tsar of the Russian Empire. He resisted efforts to give more power to the new Russian parliament (Duma) and lost the support of his people. In 1917, he abdicated the throne and was exiled to Siberia. In 1918, he and his family were executed, and shortly after, Russia became the Soviet Union.
Learn more about Tsar Nicholas II at Kiddle.
Gandhi was a civil rights leader who led the successful campaign for India’s independence from British rule. His methods of nonviolent protest inspired other famous world leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. in their own freedom fights. In 1948, a Hindu Nationalist assassinated Gandhi as he was on his way to a prayer meeting. Today, people around the world still revere Gandhi for his peaceful but powerful impact.
Learn more about Gandhi at Kiddle.
35. Vladimir Lenin, Russian Communist revolutionary
Soviet Union, 1870–1924
Lenin led the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, overseeing the transformation of the country into the Soviet Union. His government instituted Communist reforms throughout the country, redistributing land among poor peasants and nationalizing industry and the banks. Lenin is a highly divisive figure. Some consider him a champion of socialism and the poor. Others feel he instituted a totalitarian dictatorship that led to political oppression. Either way, he was a highly influential leader.
Learn more about Vladimir Lenin at Kiddle.
36. Winston Churchill, prime minister of the United Kingdom
United Kingdom, 1874–1965
As prime minister, Winston Churchill led the United Kingdom throughout World War II. He was an inspiring speaker who kept his people’s spirits up as the war took its toll on the country. Churchill had a long political career, serving as prime minister twice. He was also an accomplished author and painter and an ardent animal lover.
Learn more about Winston Churchill at Kiddle.
37. Joseph Stalin, premier of the Soviet Union
Soviet Union, 1878–1953
When Lenin died in 1924, Stalin took over as leader of the Soviet Union. Stalin was a brutal leader and killed millions of his own citizens who disagreed with him. Though he allied with the United Kingdom and the United States during World War II, his differing policies led to the start of the Cold War in the years after WWII ended. Despite his remorseless reputation, he remains one of the most famous world leaders and a popular historical figure in Russia today.
Learn more about Joseph Stalin at Kiddle.
United States, 1882–1945
Also known simply as “FDR,” Roosevelt served longer than any other U.S. president. His social and economic programs helped the country recover from the Great Depression. He gave charismatic radio talks called Fireside Chats, which made him very popular with most Americans. FDR led the country through World War II and won a record fourth term in 1944. (After this, Congress changed the law to limit all presidents to two terms.) Roosevelt had polio as a young man and spent most of his adult life in a wheelchair, though he hid this from the public. His wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, was a strong leader herself and helped him throughout his presidency.
Read more about Franklin D. Roosevelt at Kiddle.
39. Benito Mussolini, founder of the National Fascist Party
Mussolini started the Fascist political party, which became popular in Italy despite their ruthless treatment of those who opposed them. By 1925, his party had taken power and made Mussolini “Il Duce.” Mussolini ruled as a dictator and joined his country with Hitler’s Germany in World War II. Italy was unprepared for such a large war and ultimately fell to the Allies. Mussolini was captured and executed.
Learn more about Benito Mussolini at Kiddle.
40. Adolf Hitler, dictator of Germany
Hitler is undoubtedly one of the most famous world leaders of all time, but he’s also infamous. He started World War II with ruthless takeovers of much of Europe. He sent more than 6 million Jewish people to die in concentration camps during the Holocaust. Ultimately, his hubris led to defeat, and Hitler took his own life while hiding from Allied troops.
Learn more about Adolf Hitler at Kiddle.
41. Mao Zedong, founder of the People’s Republic of China
Mao was a Chinese Communist revolutionary who founded the People’s Republic of China. He oversaw extreme reforms like the Great Leap Forward when he sent people to work in huge farm communes. This was so unsuccessful that it caused a great famine and many deaths, but Mao refused to believe he was at fault. He later led a “Cultural Revolution” that destroyed many historical buildings and artifacts. Despite his brutal and controversial regime, Mao transformed China into a world power, and many there still admire him.
Learn more about Mao Zedong at Kiddle.
42. Kwame Nkrumah, president of Ghana
Kwame Nwai Nkrumah fought for the independence of the Gold Coast (Ghana and Togo) of Africa from Britain. Nkrumah went to school in the United States, but returned to the Gold Coast in 1947 and was president of the United Gold Coast Convention. With his political party, the Convention People’s Party, he organized nonviolent protests, demanding independence from Britain. He was imprisoned but later released. He was elected prime minister of the Gold Coast in 1952 and the country was given independence. When Ghana became a republic in 1960, Nkrumah became president. He ruled as a “president for life,” and Ghana became corrupt as Nkrumah retreated and eventually went into exile. Today, Ghana is a stable, democratic country and Nkrumah is remembered for his anti-colonial stance and fight for independence.
Learn more about Kwame Nkrumah at Britannica.
43. Sirimavo Bandaranaike, prime minister of Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka, 1916–2000
Bandaranaike was the first woman in the modern world to be elected head of government. When she was elected, she’d entered politics only the year before after her husband was assassinated by a Buddhist monk while he was prime minister. She was prime minister in Sri Lanka from 1960 to 1965 and again from 1970 to 1977 and from 1994 to 2000.
Learn more about Sirimavo Bandaranaike at Kiddle.
44. Indira Gandhi, prime minister of India
Indira Gandhi was the daughter of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and was part of the movement for independence from Britain early on. She was elected party leader in 1966 and later became the first female prime minister of India and served for three consecutive terms. During her fourth term, in 1984, she was assassinated. She is known for supporting Bangladesh in their war for independence, which made India the largest power in South Asia.
Learn more about Indira Gandhi at Kiddle.
45. Nelson Mandela, first black president of South Africa
South Africa, 1918–2013
Nelson Mandela was a civil rights leader and the first Black president of South Africa. Fearing his influence, the Apartheid government imprisoned him for 27 years. Even in prison, Mandela remained an inspiration, and people and governments around the world began to call for his freedom. He was released in 1990 and elected president in the free elections of 1994. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.
Learn more about Nelson Mandela at Kiddle.
46. Margaret Thatcher, Britain’s first woman prime minister
Thatcher was Britain’s first woman prime minister. She served from 1979 to 1990. She was an important leader in the Cold War who supported democracy over Communism. After one speech, the Soviets called her “the Iron Lady.” She was prime minister for 11 years, the longest-serving prime minister in the 20th century.
Learn more about Margaret Thatcher at Ducksters.
Iceland, born 1930
Finnbogadóttir was a teacher and politician who was became president of Iceland and served from 1980 to 1996. She was the first woman in the world to be elected in a national election. After her first term, which she won in a narrow victory, she was reelected three times (1984, 1988, and 1992). After serving as president, she worked in roles with United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), including as ambassador for languages.
Learn more about Vigdís Finnbogadóttir at Britannica.
48. Kofi Annan, United Nations statesman
Kofi Annan was born in Ghana and started his career with the United Nations as a budget officer for the World Health Organization in 1962. Except for two years as the director of tourism in Ghana, he spent his entire career with the U.N. He was known for how he skillfully handled the transition of peacekeeping operations during the Bosnia and Herzegovina civil war. Annan also worked to repair U.N. relations with the United States and worked to restore public confidence in the U.N., fight the AIDS virus, and end human rights abuses. He is known for working around the world to promote peace and stability. In 2008, he received the Peace of Westphalia prize, awarded for contributions to unity and peace. In 2007, he founded the Kofi Annan Foundation, which promotes peace and human rights.
Learn more about Kofi Annan at Kiddle.
Liberia, born 1938
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was a Liberian politician and economist. Liberia was a country founded by freed U.S. slaves in the 19th century. Sirleaf was born in Liberia but studied in the United States and lived in Kenya when she was younger and during the Liberian Civil War. She beat a slate of men and won support from 80% of women voters in the first presidential election after the war. Sirleaf was president of Liberia from 2006 to 2018 and was the first woman to be elected president of an African country. In 2011, she won the Nobel Prize for her work on women’s rights.
Learn more about Ellen Johnson Sirleaf at Britannica.
Germany, born 1954
Angela Merkel entered politics right after the fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany in 1989. In 2000, she became the leader of her political party in Germany and became the first female chancellor of Germany, the first East German chancellor, and the youngest chancellor (she was 51). During her four terms as chancellor, she served as the leader of Germany, a country with the most people and power in Europe.
Learn more about Angela Merkel at the Council of Women World Leaders.
51. Greta Thunberg, environmental activist
Sweden, born 2003
Greta Tintin Eleonora Ernman Thunberg is an environmental activist who, despite being a teenager when she began, became famous for demanding immediate action from world leaders for climate change mitigation. She founded a movement known as Fridays for Future (also called School Strike for Climate). Strikes have been held in countries including Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Learn more about Greta Thunberg at Britannica.
52. Barack Obama, U.S. president
United States, born 1961
Barack Obama, the 44th president of the United States, is the first African American to hold the office. A graduate of Columbia University and Harvard Law School, he was a civil rights attorney and represented the 13th District in the Illinois Senate for three terms before becoming president. He became one of the most famous world leaders when he assumed office as president in January 2009 and was reelected to a second term in November 2012.
Learn more about Barack Obama at The White House.
53. Shinzo Abe, prime minister of Japan
Shinzo Abe, one of Japan’s most famous world leaders, was the longest-serving prime minister in Japanese history, having served from 2006 to 2007 and then again from 2012 to 2020. He came from a politically influential family—his father, Shintaro Abe, was the longest-serving postwar foreign minister, and his maternal grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, was the former prime minister of Japan. His economic policies became known as “Abenomics.” Due to poor health, Abe resigned in 2020. He was tragically assassinated on July 8, 2022, while giving a speech in support of a political candidate.
Learn more about Shinzo Abe at Britannica.
54. Malala Yousafzai, education activist
Pakistan, born 1997
Born in the Swat Valley in Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai was just a high school student when she became the target of the Taliban. The terrorist group had taken over the Swat Valley and burned down girls’ schools. She kept a diary, which was published by BBC Urdu, where she tracked the events and condemned the regime. In 2012, Malala survived being shot in the head on a school bus by a Taliban gunman. She and her family fled to England, where they currently live in exile. In the years since the shooting, Malala has doubled down on her activism, speaking at the United Nations on her 16th birthday and even being named one of “The 100 Most Influential People in the World” by Time magazine.
Learn more about Malala Yousafzai at the Malala Fund.
55. Jacinda Ardern, prime minister of New Zealand
New Zealand, born 1980
Jacinda Ardern became the youngest female head of the government in the world when she was sworn in as the 40th prime minister of New Zealand at just 37 years of age. She was also the youngest leader of the Labour Party, which she joined at just 17, and after Helen Clark, was the second female to lead it. Ardern also became the youngest sitting member of Parliament when she entered Parliament at 28 years old. She faced major issues, such as the Christchurch mosque shootings in 2019 and the COVID-19 pandemic, during her time in office. She resigned as prime minister in 2023.
Learn more: Jacinda Ardern (Britannica)
56. Volodymyr Zelenskyy, president of Ukraine
Ukraine, born 1978
Long before entering politics, Volodymyr Zelenskyy was a successful comedian. In fact, his production company, Kvartal 95, produced a popular television show called Servant of the People in which he played the president of Ukraine. In a moment of life imitating art, he was actually elected in 2019 by earning more than 70% of the vote. During the first two years of his administration, Zelenskyy faced many issues including the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic recession. As Ukraine grappled with the impact of these challenges, Russia launched an ongoing full-scale invasion in February 2022. As one of the most famous world leaders of today, Zelenskyy has earned international praise for his leadership during the crisis, was named Time’s Person of the Year in 2022, and has been ranked as Ukraine’s greatest president in opinion polls.
Learn more about Volodymyr Zelenskyy at Britannica.