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The World's Greatest Leaders

The World's Greatest Leaders

Governments are failing, companies are under siege, and age-old institutions are losing their grip. How do you lead in a time when everyone is a free agent, following his own star? Fortune has found 50 living lessons.

Leung Chun-ying is the leader of Hong Kong. As chief executive, he signs bills into law, issues executive orders, appoints and removes judges and other public officials, and pardons convicted criminals. He’s the leader—except that last fall well over 100,000 Hong Kongers chose dramatically not to follow him. When they learned that the 2017 election for Leung’s position would not be free and democratic, as authorities had previously suggested, they poured into the streets and followed Joshua Wong, then 17, who had started a pro-democracy student group. Leung, 60, commanded a vast city administration, including police wielding pepper spray and truncheons. Wong had a cellphone. Yet the protesters paralyzed Hong Kong for three months, Leung’s already low approval ratings plunged to their lowest ever, and Wong landed on the cover of Time’s Asia edition, which called him the “Voice of a Generation.”

So who’s the real leader? The answer is obvious: Leung has the leader’s job, but he doesn’t have leadership. Wong is the one who demonstrated that—which is why he’s the one on Fortune’s 2015 roster of the World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.

The magazine cast a wide net in assembling its list, which includes leaders without any formal designation, like Wong, as well as elected government officials, CEOs, chiefs of NGOs, clergy, coaches, athletes, artists, and more—all judged on their leadership within their professional domains, industries, or fields of service or governance. 

To make this roster, it was not enough to be brilliant, admirable, or even supremely powerful. Fortune set out to find singular leaders with vision who moved others to act as well, and who brought their followers with them on a shared quest. 

It looked for effectiveness and commitment and for the courage to pioneer. All had to be active in leadership roles, though a long history of leading is something that many on our list share. And only a few are repeats from last year; in each case, he or she had to requalify with new achievements in the past 12 months. 

The generational difference between Leung and Wong symbolizes a larger point: that today’s leadership isn’t the same as yesterday’s. Yes, some elements are eternal, and it’s tempting to believe we can learn what we need to know by studying, as various books have urged, the leadership secrets of Genghis Khan, Ulysses S. Grant, the Salvation Army, and Santa Claus, among others. 

The World’s Greatest Leaders are the best examples found of how to succeed in this challenging new environment, where leaders must earn their leadership every day.

The first ten leaders on the list have been featured below in order of ranking.


By Geoff Colvin