Leadership Heroes and Villains:
Biographies of Famous Historical Figures

The ability to learn from and build on the lessons learned from the past, to accumulate the knowledge and wisdom gained from our predecessors, is one of the key factors that differentiates us from every other species on Earth. As Duke University professor of neuroscience Brian Hare explains, this is a critical part of what enabled homo sapiens to beat out the other species of humans (including Neanderthals and homo erectus), some of which were bigger, and had bigger brains.

In their book, Survival of the Friendliest, Hare and Woods write, “What allowed us to thrive while other humans went extinct was a kind of cognitive superpower: a particular type of friendliness called cooperative communication.” Not only does this allow us to “synchronize [our] behavior,” and “coordinate different roles,” but it also allows us to “pass on [our] innovations.” (p. xxv)

“We develop all of these skills before we can walk or talk, and,” Hare and Woods write, “they are the gateway to a sophisticated social and cultural world. They allow us to plug our minds into the minds of others and inherit the knowledge of generations.”(p. xxv)

Only a fool would fail to take advantage of this vast generational knowledge, the collected wisdom of history. As Harvard philosophy professor George Santayana reminds us, ‘to fail to know history is to doom yourself to repeat its mistakes.’

List of Historical Leaders by Time Period

Leaders from Ancient History

Leaders from the Bronze and Early Iron Age

Narmer was a Political Leader of Ancient Egypt

Narmer (Menes) (c. 3200 B.C.)

King Narmer was the first known leader (pharaoh) of Ancient Egypt and is believed to be the founder of Egypt’s first dynasty. Some scholars credit Narmer with uniting the peoples of Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt.
Fu-Hsi, the First Political Leader in China

Fu Hsi (c. 2900 B.C.)

Legend has it that Fu Hsi was the very first Chinese emperor, ruling in the 29th century B.C. Fu Hsi is believed to be the author of the I Ching, the oldest and most revered book of Chinese wisdom.

Yellow Emperor (2697–2597 B.C.)

The Yellow Emperor was an apocryphal figure in ancient China. He was first among the Five Emperors and is widely considered to be the earliest ancestor of the Chinese people. He is credited with a number of early inventions—including boats, clothing, medicine, math, law and writing. He is also believed to be the originator of a strong, centralized state. When he grew old and his empire began to falter he is reported to have said: “My fault is want of moderation. The misery I suffer comes from over-attention to my own self, and the troubles of the Empire from over-regulation in everything.”
Gilgamesh the Builder

Gilgamesh (c. 2500 B.C.)

Gilgamesh was the great legendary hero and king of Uruk. He is known primarily through the Epic of Gilgamesh, one of the earliest known works of Mesopotamian literature. Gilgamesh was also known as a great builder. He is often remembered for his friendship with a wild man from the woods and for his quest for immortality.

Sargon the Great (2270-2215 B.C.)

Sargon the Great was an ancient ruler of Mesopotamia most famous for conquering the Sumerian city-states. He was also known as a great military leader, tactician and strategist. Legend has it that Sargon was discovered as an infant floating in a basket on a river. From his humble beginnings, he came to build and lead one of ancient history’s greatest empires.
Abraham is a leader in three different religions.

Abraham (1812-1637 B.C.)

Abraham was a great propphet, central to the Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—who is believed to be a forefather of both Jesus (through Isaac) and Muhammad (through Ishmael). Abraham is often remembered for being a “friend of God” and for his remarkable faith (he was prepared to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac, until God sent an angel to stop him).

Hammurabi (c.1792-1750 B.C.)

Hammurabi was the first king of the Babylonian Dynasty. He began as a successful military leader, but is most famous for establishing the first set of recorded laws, known as Hammurabi’s Code.

Moses (c. 1592 or 1391-1271 B.C.)

Moses was a great leader and prophet who was responsible for leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and into the “Promised Land.” He is a central figure in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. According to a number of sacred religious texts, God revealed His teachings to Moses on Mount Sinai as the Ten Commandments around 1200 B.C.

Hatsheput (1508-1458 B.C.)

Queen Hatsheput was the first great woman in recorded history and one of the most successful, longest reigning pharaohs in Egypt. She is remembered for her peaceful reign, numerous successful trade expeditions, and for her prolific building projects.
King Tut Egyptian Leader

King Tutankhamun ("King Tut") 1342-1324 B.C.)

Tutankhamun ascended the throne in 1333 B.C. while still a youth (believed to be about 9 or 10 years old). His reign lasted only 10 years and was dominated by his powerful advisors. The most significant aspect of his reign was his rejection of his father’s (Akhenaten) worhsip of the god Aten and his restoration of the practice of worshipping the god Amun. Tutankhamun also initiated several building projects and worked to improve relations with neighboring kingdoms. He is believed to be the product of incest and likely died of related complications that led to his fall. His tomb was discovered nearly intact by Howard Carter in 1922. Today, Tutankhamun’s burial mask (see photo) remains a symbol of ancient Egyptian leadership.

King David I (c.1035 - 972 B.C.)

David was the second king of the nation of Israel. He was an ancestor of Jesus through both Joseph and Mary. David is usually remembered for defeating Goliath, the giant Philistine warrior. He is also the man depicted in Michelangelo’s Renaissance masterpiece, the statue of David. He was a writer and philosopher (he wrote the Book of Psalms) and is remembered as a good and virtuous king (though certainly not without fault).

Leaders from Classical Antiquity

Ashurnasirpal II (c. 9th cent.. B.C.)

Ashurnasirpal II was the third king and a brutal conqueror of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Along with his successful military conquests, he is also known for the consolidation of the Assyrian Empire. He is, however, also known for his unsuccessful siege of Tyre (unlike Alexander the Great in 332 B.C.). More than anything, however, Ashurnasirpal is remembered for the wickedly evil treatment of those he defeated. As he said himself,

“I built a pillar over against the city gate and I flayed all the chiefs who had revolted and I covered the pillar with their skins. Some I impaled upon the pillar on stakes and others I bound to stakes round the pillar. I cut the limbs off the officers who had rebelled. Many captives I burned with fire and many I took as living captives. From some I cut off their noses, their ears, and their fingers, of many I put out their eyes. I made one pillar of the living and another of heads and I bound their heads to tree trunks round about the city. Their young men and maidens I consumed with fire. The rest of their warriors I consumed with thirst in the desert of the Euphrates.”

Hoshea (732-721 B.C.)

Hoshea was the last of the 19 kings of the Israelite Kingdom of Israel.
Solon the Hero of Athenian Democracy

Solon (638-558 B.C.)

Solon was an Athenian statesman, lawmaker and poet. He is often credited as the founder of Athenian democracy. The name Solon means “wise lawmaker,” and Solon more than lived up to the name with his efforts to fight against the tyranny of Athenian leaders, and political and moral decline in ancient Athens.
Cyrus the Great, founder of the Achaemenid Empire, the first Persian Empire

Cyrus the Great (c. 600-530 B.C.)

Cyrus II was the founder of the Persian Empire. Cyrus was a great conquerer, but he is most remembered for uniting different tribes (the Medes and the Persians) and for his religious tolerance and for his magnanimity and generosity toward those he conquered.

Cleisthenes (570-508 B.C.)

Cleisthenes was a leader in Ancient Athens. He is credited with bringing democracy to Athens through his reformations of the Athenian constitution. He is known by historians today as “the father of Athenian democracy.”

Cimon (510-450 B.C.)

Cimon was an Athenian statesman and general in mid-5th century Greece. Cimon’s effort in helping to create the Athenian maritime empire following Xerxes I’s failed invasion of Greece in 480–479 B.C. was vital to their success. Cimon was commander of the Greek forces at the Battle of the Eurymedon which ended with the destruction of both the Persian army and their naval fleet in 466 B.C.
Pericles of Ancient Athens

Pericles (495 - 429 B.C.)

Pericles was a prominent statesman, orator, and general of ancient Athens who is often (though not universally) categorized by 20th century scholars as a populist. Plutarch writes that Pericles, to his own credit, given his aristocratic background, “…took his side, not with the rich and few, but with the many and poor…” Pericles is often remembered for his legendary oratory and for his influence on Athenian society, which earned him the title “the first citizen of Athens.” Pericles said: “We do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all.”
Wisdom of History from Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.)

Beyond being a brilliant military tactician, Alexander the Great was a master of grand strategy. Always adopting a long-term perspective with an impressively broad scope, he was never thinking solely of how to outmaneuver an enemy on the battlefield. Along with the strategic use of military force, Alexander was also thinking of the relevant geopolitical and economic factors, the diplomatic means at his disposal, the intelligence assets he could exploit, how he would navigate the cultural differences and lead the people he conquered, what influence his actions would have on Greece, and how to maintain both the morale of his men, and the loyalty of his subjects back home. In essence, Alexander demonstrated a remarkable multi-dimensional grasp of grand strategy, which was essential to his vision of cultural exchange within his global, cosmopolitan empire. In the end, Alexander failed to achieve his dream; and, yet, across a wide array of different terrains, facing a range of diverse enemy forces, often two or three times the size of the Macedonian army, Alexander, not once defeated in battle, ultimately conquered the known world, and built an empire the likes of which no one had ever before seen. What’s more, he did all of this a long, long way from home. And he did it all before age 33.
Hannibal on Influence

Hannibal (c. 248-182 B.C.)

Hannibal was a great military general and political leader of ancient Carthage (a Mediterranean city located in Northern Africa in what is now Tunisia). He is most famous for his victories over the Roman Republic during the Second Punic War; including a daring, surprise march across the Alps, complete with a large army, cavalry and war elephants. As with many leaders, he was prepared to do whatever he had to do to succeed. When his generals declared it was impossible to cross the Alps with elephants, Hannibal famously said, “I will either find a way, or make one.”

Leaders from the Middle Ages (c. 2nd to 15th century)

Leaders from Late Antiquity (The Dark Ages)

Constantine I was Roman emperor from 306 to 337

Constantine (280-337 A.D.)

Constantine was the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity. He is widely remembered for issuing the Edict of Milan, which helped to promote religious tolerance for all religions throughout the Roman empire. Constantine was also a fierece military general. He founded the city, now known as Constantinople, when he moved the capital of Rome to the east.

Alaric the Visigoth (c. 370-410 A.D.)

Alaric the Visigoth

Pope Saint Leo the Great (400-461 A.D.)

Pope Saint Leo the Great

Attila the Hun (405-453 A.D.)

Attila was the king and military leader of the Huns, a group of Eurasian nomadic barbarians known for spreading terror throughout Europe and sacking Roman cities at will. To the Romans, Attila was the “Scourge of God;” a brutal, bloodthirsty and barbaric ruler who would stop at nothing to satisfy his lust for land, booty and power.

Odoacer the Ostrogoth (433-493)

Odacer is best known for deposing the child emperor Romulus Augustulus, becoming King of Italy, ruling from 476 to 493. Considered a barbarian by the Romans, he is believed to be of Germanic descent.

Leaders from the Early Middle Ages

Justinian I "Justinian the Great" (482-565)

Justinian I “Justinian the Great”

Wu Zetian (624-705)

Wu Zetian

Khosrau II (c. 570-628)

Khosrau was the last Sasanian Shah (king) of Iran.
Charlemagne_Leader of the Franks, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire

Charlemagne (742-814)

Charlemagne was King of the Franks and the Lombards and, in 800, he was crowned as the Emperor of Rome by Pope Leo III. He is often remembered for the size of his empire, which covered the majority of western Europe, and for enthusiastically promoting both Christianity and scholarship. He is also often remembered for his many wars alongside the revival of learning and culture. He could be magnanimous toward those he conquered. Today, he is often remembered as the Father of Europe.

King Alfred the Great (849-899)

Alfred the Great was king of the Anglo-Saxons from 886 to 899. When he first acceded to the throne of Wessex in April of 1871 he struggled against Viking invasions for several years.

Leaders from the High Middle Ages

King Macbeth of Scotland (c.1005-1057)

King Macbeth of Scotland, remembered in part thanks to William Shakespeare.

William the Conquerer (1027-1087)

William I was the first Norman king of England, reigning from 1066, when he defeated Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings, until his death in 1087.

David I of Scotland (1083-1153)

David I of Scotland was the son of Malcolm III and Margaret of Wessex, also known as Saint Margaret of Scotland.

Zhu Xi (1130-1200)

Zhu Xi was a Chinese historian, writer, philosopher, and politician of the Song dynasty. He was also a Confucian scholar who helped shape Chinese culture with a lasting influence.

Richard I "Richard the Lionheart" (1157-1199)

“Richard the Lionheart”

Genghis Khan (1162--1227)

One of the great conquerors in human history.

William Wallace (1270-1305)

Sir William Wallace was a knight and revolutionary leader in the Kingdom of Scotland who attempted to prevent Scotland from losing her independence to England. Wallace led an uprising against the English on September 11, 1297 and defeated a much larger, superior English army at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. Wallace soon emerged as the Guardian of Scotland. Wallace was later defeated and eventually captured by the English. Condemned of treason and acts of war, Wallace was hanged, disemboweled and quartered. Undeterred by England’s victory, the memory of Wallace continued to inspire the Scottish people who kept fighting and eventually won back their independence.

Leaders from the Late Middle Ages (Renaissance)

Joan of Arc_Revolutionary Leader of France

Joan of Arc (1412-1431)

Joan of Arc, a heroine of France, was a young French peasant who led the French army against the English, securing many key triumphs during the Hundred Years’ War. After being burned at the stake for heresy, Joan of Arc was eventually declared a saint by the Roman Catholic church in 1920.

Leaders from the Early Modern Period (c. 16th to 17th century)

Leaders from the Age of Discover, Age of Exploration

Christopher Columbus (1451-1506)

Explorer. Governor. Oppressor.

Ferdinand II (1452-1516)

Ferdinand Magellan (1480-1521)

Leaders from the Reformation

Martin Luther (1483-1546)

MARTIN LUTHER TAKES A STAND: On October 31, 1517, a humble, scholarly, and deeply religious Augustinian monk and theology professor changed the course of human history when he nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the All Saints’ Church. Challenging the authority and railing against the corruption of the Church, all while undermining important sources of revenue, particularly the sale of indulgences (selling the forgiveness of sins and the salvation of dead relatives), Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses put him on a collision course with the mighty Roman Catholic Church. The idea that believers are justified by faith alone was an epic blow to the power and authority of the Church, a radical challenge that would trigger a crisis of faith in Christianity. “The church was everywhere with her claim to rule over men’s daily lives and over their souls. All progress was conditioned on breaking her claims, and probably nothing could have done it so thoroughly as this idea of justification by faith only.”1490 The fallout was sweeping, profound and immediate.1491 And it included a revolutionary rethinking of authority and leadership that went well beyond the church. Martin Luther had landed “…a mortal blow at the great hierarchy of privilege and…tyranny built up by the Middle Ages.”1492 With Gutenberg’s printing press running at full speed by this time, Pope Leo X was determined to quickly silence this dangerous critic and force him to recant his Theses before any more damage could be done. But when Luther was ordered to retract his arguments he refused. Instead, he began to give public talks, debating the need for church reforms.Orta66 By 1521, Luther was declared a heretic and excommunicated. He was later forced to attend a formal Imperial hearing before the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, as well as princes, imperial electors, and other dignitaries. The Archbishop of Trier again urged Luther to recant his Theses. Fearing that he might be burned at the stake, Luther asked for time for further consideration. After a night of prayer and reflection, he returned to the hearing inside the palace and once again refused, telling the assembly that he could not recant, “for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.”Orta66 He then concluded with the now famous words, “Here I stand, I can do no other.”Orta66 Condemned as an outlaw with his life now in peril, Luther escaped to Wartburg Castle where he was granted sanctuary by a political ally, Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony. But his work was essentially done. Indeed, Martin Luther’s bold stand for his beliefs sparked the Protestant Reformation and forever changed the face of Christianity and relationships of power and authority across the Western World.

Henry VIII of England (1491-1547)

John Calvin (1509-1564)

Ivan IV "Ivan the Terrible" (1530-1584)

Elizabeth I, Queen of England (1533-1603)

Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658)

Leaders from the Late Modern Period (c. 17th to 20th century)

Leaders from the Age of Reason (Enlightenment)

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)

Benjamin Franklin was one of America’s Founding Fathers and he remains a leading legend in U.S. history and an iconic figure in popular culture. Old Ben was a true Renaissance man; he was a diplomat, a politician, an author, a scientist, an inventor, a musician, and a leading revolutionary. Ben Franklin is rememberd for many things, including discovering electricity and helping to spawn the American Revolution.

Leaders from the Age of Revolution

Leaders from the World War I and World War II Era

Leaders from the Atomic Age

Leaders from the Sixties

Leaders from the Cold War Era

Leaders from the Postmodern Period (c. late 20th century)

Leaders from the Space Age

Leaders from the Information Age