We are fascinated by power. We stand in awe of those who apply it adroitly—and in fear of those who abuse it. We lust for power. Everyone would rather be a hammer than a nail.
The people on this list were chosen ¬because, in various ways, they bend the world to their will. They are heads of state, major religious figures, entrepreneurs and outlaws. Comparing the relative power of such a diverse group is slippery business. To do it, Forbes defined power in four dimensions. First, they asked if a person has influence over a lot of people? For heads-of-state they looked at population, for religious figures they measured the size of their flocks, for CEOs they counted their employees and for media figures Forbes considered the size of their audience.
Second, Forbes checked to see if these figures have significant financial resources relative to their peers. Then it was determined if they were powerful in multiple spheres, awarding bonus points for those who can project their power many ways. Finally Forbes insisted that they actively wield their power.
10. Bill GatesAge: 54 Title: Co-Chair Source: Microsoft, self-made Residence: Medina, WA Country of citizenship: United States Education: Dropout, Harvard University Marital Status: Married Children: 3
Selling charity raffle tickets is hard; coaxing tycoons to pledge half their fortunes to philanthropy is near impossible. Apparently no one told Gates. This year the Microsoft mogul, futurist and America's richest person strong-armed (with help from henchman Warren Buffett) 40 of the world's wealthiest to sign his "Giving Pledge," promising to donate the majority of their wealth to charity during their lifetimes. No longer the planet's richest person, but that's because he's given nearly $30 billion philanthropically. World's most influential charity tackles AIDS, tuberculosis, polio and funds famine-resistant crops to fight hunger. Worth $54 billion, Gates holds 70% of his wealth in investment fund Cascade, dabbling in everything from autos to hedge funds to trash collecting.
(Krista Kennell/Sipa Press/Newscom)
9. Sonia GandhiAge: 63 Title: President Residence: New Delhi Country of citizenship: India
Despite Italian birth, foreign religion (Roman Catholic) and political reluctance, Gandhi wields unequaled influence over 1.2 billion Indians. Recently elected to record fourth term as head of India's ruling Congress Party, cementing status as true heiress to the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty. Handpicked brainy Sikh economist Manmohan Singh (also a listee) as prime minister. Inspired choice: Singh universally praised as India's best prime minister since Nehru, ideally trained to lead the world's fourth-largest economy in terms of purchasing power into next decade. But Gandhi remains the real power behind the nuclear-tipped throne. Grooming 40-year-old son Rahul for prime minister role.
8. Ben BernankeAge: 56 Title: Chairman Residence: Washington, DC Country of citizenship: United States
Some argue Fed's influence is at all-time high, given size of its burgeoning balance sheet ($2.3 trillion) relative to the underlying economy ($14.3 trillion). But Bernanke's options have waned since peak of the financial crisis. He now has essentially only one arrow left in his financial quiver: quantitative easing--in layman's terms, "printing money." He last employed the technique in 2008 and is widely expected to repeat the move this month. At least he's honest: "The U.S. government has a technology, called a printing press, that allows it to produce as many U.S. dollars as it wishes at essentially no cost."
Youngest British prime minister in 198 years is product of privilege: Eton, Brasenose College, Oxford; is descended (illegitimately) from King William IV. Hailed by some as the second coming of Margaret Thatcher, Cameron shares the Iron Lady's determination to slash government expenditures (defense, higher education), but as the leader of a coalition government he can ill-afford to repeat her brash divisiveness.
(AP Photo/Akira Suemori)
6. Angela Merkel...Age: 56 Title: Chancellor Residence: Berlin Country of citizenship: Germany Marital Status: Married
Most powerful woman on the planet. Chancellor of Germany oversees Europe's largest economy. Renowned free-market champion and favorite of big business, boasts nine public companies with annual sales in excess of $70 billion. In all, there are 57 German companies on the Forbes Global 2000 ranking of the world's largest public companies, with aggregate sales of $1.7 trillion.
Highest earthly authority for 1.1 billion souls, or one-sixth of world's population. Staunch traditionalist deplores secularism, consumerism and moral relativism, unbending on birth control, gay marriage and ordination of female priests. Despite major gaffes (including lifting the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying Bishop and quoting a 14th-century source that declared the only new things the prophet Mohammed brought were "evil and inhuman"), appears genuinely interested in healing old wounds. In September, not only became the first Pope to visit Westminster Abbey since the Protestant Reformation, but also shook hands with a clergywoman (another first). Widening sexual abuse scandal could undermine moral authority, but increasingly willing to tackle issue head on: "Forgiveness does not substitute for justice." Stylish: Has brought back traditional red, custom-made "pope shoes" and old-school Ecclesiastical headgear.
(AP Photo/Matt Cardy)
4. Vladimir Puti...Age: 57 Title: Prime Minister Residence: Moscow Country of citizenship: Russia
Prime Minister still more powerful than his handpicked head-of-state, President Dmitry Medvedev. Former KGB officer will likely replace protégé in 2012. In the meantime, has final say over one-ninth of Earth's land area, vast energy and mineral resources. Declared nuclear power has veto on U.N.'s Security Council. Russian government agency reported to have already registered web address Putin-2012.rf. On running again: "The president of the United States, Roosevelt, was elected four times in a row because it did not contradict the American Constitution" (September 2010).
Absolute ruler of desert kingdom that contains the world's largest crude oil reserves, two holiest sites in Islam. State-owned oil producer Saudi Aramco has reserves of 266 billion barrels, or one-fifth of planet's known supply (worth $22 trillion at today's oil prices). Pushing for gradual social and legal reforms, while maintaining good relations with deeply conservative religious establishment. Ultimate succession unclear: 86-year-old king's official heir is 82-year-old Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud. Established committee of senior princes to ensure smooth transition in the event both become incapacitated.
2. Barack ObamaAge: 49 Title: President Residence: Washington, DC Country of citizenship: United States
Obama's Democrats suffered a mighty blow in U.S. midterm elections, with the president decisively losing support of the House of Representatives, and barely holding onto the Senate. It's quite a come-down for last year's most powerful person, who after enacting widespread reforms in his first two years in office will be hard-pressed to implement his agenda in the next two. He can take comfort in the fact that he remains commander-in-chief of world's largest, deadliest military, leader of world's largest (in spending) and most dynamic economy and holds the unofficial title of "Leader of the Free World."
(White House Photo by Pete Souza)
1. Hu JintaoAge: 67 Title: President Residence: Beijing Country of citizenship: China
Paramount political leader of more people than anyone else on the planet; exercises near dictatorial control over 1.3 billion people, one-fifth of world's population. Unlike Western counterparts, Hu can divert rivers, build cities, jail dissidents and censor Internet without meddling from pesky bureaucrats, courts. Recently surpassed Japan to become the world's second-largest economy both in absolute and purchasing power terms. Credible estimates have China poised to overtake U.S. as world's largest economy in 25 years--although, crucially, not on a per-capita basis. Creditor nation oversees world's largest reserves at $2.65 trillion--$1.5 trillion of which is in U.S. dollar holdings. Refuses to kowtow to U.S. pressure to change its exchange-rate regime. Heads world's largest army (in size). His handpicked successor, Xi Jinping, set to assume the presidency in 2012.