What it takes to get on CNBC’s power list

CNBC is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year and kicking off the yearlong fête with a viewer-generated “definitive” ranking of those who “have had the greatest influence, sparked the biggest changes and created the most disruption in business over the past quarter century.” According to a press release, the pool of contenders were chosen based on the following criteria:

  • A person must have been more than a good CEO. He/she should have altered business, commerce, management or human behavior—in other words, the person should have been responsible for ushering in meaningful change, with business being the primary sphere of influence.
  • A person does not need to be alive, and his/her early work may have predated 1989, but his/her transformative impact should be greatest during the past 25 years.
  • The pool of candidates should be diverse, reflecting different geographies and sectors.

The selection of 200 nominees was compiled by CNBC’s own “elite advisory board,” which included Paul Steiger, former Wall Street Journal managing editor and ProPublica founding editor. The list will be whittled down to just 25 through online voting. Former Forbes executive editor Paul Maidment will serve as an editor on the project.

It is quite the list. There is the questionable yet inevitable inclusion of J.P. Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon, who recently led his company through record-breaking settlements with the Department of Justice, and more curious choices such as recently indicted SAC founder Steven Cohen (fined $1.8 billion for insider trading), former Enron CEO Ken Lay (found guilty for conspiracy and fraud), former Tyco CEO Dennis Kozlowski (recently released on parole), and disgraced WorldCom CEO Bernie Ebbers (currently serving a 25 year sentence).

CNBC discussed its inclusion of these “villains,” using their inclusion of Bernie Ebbers over Bernie Madoff as an example:

Whenever a list is unveiled, it inevitably leads to a subset of questions. I won’t attempt to answer all of them, but I will try to take one question head on: What about people whose effect was less than desirable? What about villains and convicted felons?

That’s where Bernie Madoff and Bernie Ebbers come in. Undoubtedly, both Bernies were global front-page stories, but one could argue that Ebbers had a far more profound impact on business, helping upend the telecommunications industry (and prompting AT&T to dismember itself). Madoff, meanwhile, committed one of the biggest frauds in history with tragic consequences for his investors, but it’s hard to discern any fundamental change to business or behavior as a result of his actions.

Are these guys really what CNBC considers leaders, icons, and rebels? Will Jordan Belfort show up as a write-in candidate? So many questions.

I created a list of CNBC’s First 25 contenders in the LittleSis database, which allows you to navigate their connections, donations, and, if relevant, funding sources. Check out my post on LittleSis’ list function for more information on using this tool for research.

Review the interlocks tab and you’ll find some interesting patterns. Names cluster around foreign policy think tank, the Council on Foreign Relations, business policy think tank Business Roundtable, and social security privatization group Fix the Debt. The Augusta National Golf Club, famous for its once fervent male-only admission policy, is popular among this group, as is the ultra-exclusive Alfalfa Club, which stood firm against co-ed membership until 1993.

Move over to the giving tab and you’ll see some eye-popping numbers. Since the list is arranged by total, the Koch brothers, Blackstone Group’s Stephen Schwarzman, former AIG CEO Maurice Greenberg, and SAC’s Steven Cohen top the list with their eight and nine figure donations. If you’re interested in where these “leaders, icons, and rebels” congregate their money, the graph below shows the top 20 individuals and organizations with the most individual donors from CNBC’s list.

Top 20 recipients of individual donations

Take a spin through the list and let us know if you think this group of “leaders, icons, and rebels” embodies “meaningful change” in business. Who would you add to the list?