5 Influential Leaders Who Transformed the World

Born to lead


Mother Teresa in 1986. (Image credit: Túrelio | Creative Commons)

Powerful leaders have the ability to shape history, and a select few have the distinction of truly changing the world. Here are five influential leaders who did just that.

Nelson Mandela (1918-2013)

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela (Image credit: Video Screengrab/YouTube/sabcdigitalnews)

Nelson Mandela was an anti-apartheid revolutionary who went on to serve as the first black president of South Africa from 1994 to 1999. A noted human rights activist, Mandela led South Africa's fight against segregation and apartheid.

In 1961, Mandela co-founded Umkhonto we Sizwe, a militant wing of the African National Congress, which opposed the South African government's system of racial segregation. He served 27 years in prison after he was convicted of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government. Although he was sentenced to life in prison, Mandela was released in 1990 after an international campaign successfully lobbied for his freedom.

Over the course of his life, Mandela received more than 250 honors, including the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993. Mandela died at the age of 95 on Dec. 5, 2013.

Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)


Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948), political and spiritual leader of India. Public domain image.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi led the fight for Indian nationalism against British rule in the 1920s. His celebrated use of nonviolent protest inspired similar movements in support of rights and freedoms around the globe. "Mahatma," which translates to "venerable" in Sanskrit, was an honorific first bestowed on him in 1914 in South Africa, and is now widely used.

Gandhi was assassinated on Jan. 30, 1948, at the age of 78. His birthday, Oct. 2, is commemorated as a national holiday in India, and is celebrated worldwide as the International Day of Nonviolence.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968)

Martin Luther King, Jr. Monument

The Martin Luther King, Jr. monument in Washington, D.C. (Image credit: Mesut Dogan | Shutterstock)

Martin Luther King, Jr. was an American activist and humanitarian who became the leader of the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Similar to Mahatma Gandhi, King became known for advancing civil rights through nonviolent civil disobedience.

As a Baptist minister, King took part in the 1955 Montgomery Bus Protest, a political and social campaign against the racially segregated public transit system in Montgomery, Ala. King went on to help organize the 1963 March on Washington, where he famously delivered his iconic "I Have a Dream" speech.

King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn. Before his death, in 1964, King received the Nobel Peace Prize. He was also awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal posthumously. In 1986, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was named a federal holiday in the United States.

Mother Teresa (1910-1997)


Mother Teresa in 1986. (Image credit: Túrelio | Creative Commons)

Mother Teresa was an Albanian-born Roman Catholic nun. In 1950, she founded the Missionaries of Charity in Calcutta, India, a religious congregation that is currently active in more than 130 countries. In her work with the Missionaries of Charity, Mother Teresa cared for the poor, sick, orphaned and dying.

The Missionaries of Charity gradually expanded beyond India, and in 2012, consisted of more than 4,500 sisters operating in 133 countries. The congregation runs hospices and homes for people with HIV, leprosy and tuberculosis; soup kitchens; children's and family counseling programs; orphanages and schools.

Mother Teresa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979. She died on Sept. 5, 1997 at the age of 87. In 2003, she was beatified (made a saint) by Pope John Paul II, and was given the title Blessed Teresa of Calcutta.

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln (Image credit: whitehouse.gov)

Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States, and led the country through the tumultuous American Civil War, which was fought from 1861 to 1865. The war, fought over the contentious issue of slavery, began after several Southern states moved to secede, and formed the Confederate States of America.

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, delivered on Nov. 19, 1863, during the Civil War, is one of the best-known speeches in American history. In it, Lincoln echoed the principles of human equality from the Declaration of Independence, and declared that the Civil War, and the preservation of the Union, would bring true equality to all the country's citizens.

Lincoln's efforts to abolish slavery culminated in the Emancipation Proclamation, which was issued on Jan. 1, 1863. The measure prompted the Senate to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which permanently outlawed slavery.

Lincoln was assassinated at Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C., on April 14, 1865, at the age of 56.

Denise Chow
Live Science Contributor

Denise Chow was the assistant managing editor at Live Science before moving to NBC News as a science reporter, where she focuses on general science and climate change. Before joining the Live Science team in 2013, she spent two years as a staff writer for Space.com, writing about rocket launches and covering NASA's final three space shuttle missions. A Canadian transplant, Denise has a bachelor's degree from the University of Toronto, and a master's degree in journalism from New York University.