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 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. We’ve also included links to kid-friendly websites where they can learn more.
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 include one of the earliest examples of an accused person being considered innocent until proven guilty.
Learn more: Hammurabi (History for Kids)
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: Hatshepsut (National Geographic Kids)
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: Ramses II (Britannica Kids)
4. Cyrus the Great, Founder of the Achaemenid Empire
Persia, 600–560 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: Cyrus the Great (History for Kids)
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: Pericles (Britannica Kids)
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: Alexander the Great (History for Kids)
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: Qin Shi Huang (Ducksters)
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: Julius Caesar (Ducksters)
Egypt, 69–30 B.C.E.
Cleopatra 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: Cleopatra VII (History for Kids)
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: Emperor Augustus (Ducksters)
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: Constantine the Great (History for Kids)
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: Wu Zetian (Ducksters)
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: Charlemagne (Ducksters)
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: William the Conqueror (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: Genghis Khan (Academic Kids)
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: Kublai Khan (Ducksters)
17. Joan of Arc, Patron Saint of France
France, circa 1412–1430
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: Joan of Arc (Activity Village)
18. 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: King Henry VIII (National Geographic Kids)
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 Hapsburgs 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: Suleiman the Magnificent (Ducksters)
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: Queen Elizabeth I (National Geographic Kids)
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: Catherine the Great (Britannica Kids)
22. 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: George Washington (National Geographic Kids)
23. Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of Independence
United States, 1743–1826
The third president of the United States 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: Thomas Jefferson (Time for Kids)
24. 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: Tecumseh (Ducksters)
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: Napoleon Bonaparte (Britannica Kids)
26. 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: José de San Martín (Britannica Kids)
27. 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 Columbia, 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: Simón Bolívar (Britannica Kids)
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: Abraham Lincoln (Time for Kids)
29. 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 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: Queen Victoria (National Geographic Kids)
30. 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: Sitting Bull (Ducksters)
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: Tsar Nicholas II (Britannica Kids)
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: Mahatma Gandhi (Ducksters)
33. 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: Vladimir Lenin (Ducksters)
34. 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: Winston Churchill (The School Run)
35. 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: Joseph Stalin (Ducksters)
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, was a strong leader herself and helped him throughout his presidency.
Learn more: Franklin D. Roosevelt (National Geographic Kids)
37. 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: Benito Mussolini (Ducksters)
38. 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: Adolf Hitler (Britannica Kids)
39. 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 to a world power, and many there still admire him.
Learn more: Mao Zedong (Britannica Kids)
40. 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: Nelson Mandela (National Geographic Kids)
41. 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: Greta Thunberg (Britannica)
42. 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 re-elected to a second term in November 2012.
Learn more: Barack Obama (The White House)
43. Shinzo Abe, Prime Minister of Japan
Shinzo Abe 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 post-war foreign minister, and his maternal grandfather, Nobosuke 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.