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Who mattered—and who didn’t—in the last 25 years?

Bernie Ebbers or Bernie Madoff? Sandy Weill or Jamie Dimon? Oprah or Madonna?

As CNBC turns 25 this year, we are kicking off our year-long celebration by first reflecting on the past to establish a definitive list of people who have had the greatest influence, sparked the biggest changes and created the most disruption in business over the past quarter century.

We are calling it CNBC First 25: leaders, icons and rebels. The criteria are threefold:

  • 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 be 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.

So where do you begin? CNBC has assembled an elite advisory board with a deep knowledge of business and global expertise to help with this daunting task. They are:

1. Herminia Ibarra, a professor of leadership and learning at INSEAD, where she also directs its executive program for managers moving into senior leadership roles.

2. Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, senior associate dean at the Yale School of Management and a CNBC contributor.

3. Paul E. Steiger, former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal and executive chairman and founding editor of ProPublica.

In addition, guiding CNBC's distinguished editorial team through this project is Paul Maidment, who will serve as contributing editor. Maidment is the founding editor of FT.com and former executive editor of Forbes.

With the help of this group, we have come up with a pool of 200 people we think fit the bill. From these ranks, we will compile our list of the CNBC First 25. Determining this initial list was no easy feat—it could easily have been 400—and led to some spirited debates. We excluded heads of state as well as some sports and entertainment figures but kept others we felt meaningfully changed the business landscape. (For example, we kept Oprah Winfrey and excluded Madonna.) We also grouped a few people whose futures were inextricably tied together. For example, we placed Sergey Brin, Larry Page and Eric Schmidt as a group. Think of them as the Beatles.

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.

Even as we release this list of 200 candidates, we can all think of others who arguably merit inclusion. By its very nature, this is an imprecise and imperfect exercise.

Here is where you come in. Our success as a network is due to a passionate and loyal audience that has had a front-row seat for the past 25 years. You have been with us on this journey, and we would like you to have a say on who should make our final list of 25. We are asking you to tell us by clicking on the names on our list and selecting your favorites. In addition, if there is someone significant you think we should add, share your thoughts in the comments. If there is a compelling case for someone who should be on the final list of 25, we would certainly consider it.

In April, the month of our anniversary, we will reveal a ranked list of the top 25, tell their stories and explain how we came to our decision. Our aim is that these CNBC First 25 leaders will then help us choose the CNBC Next 25—the 25 people who most stand to change the landscape over the next quarter century.

But that's the subject of another note. Until then, tell us who would make your list of the top leaders, icons and rebels of the past 25 years?

By Nikhil Deogun, Editor-in-Chief and SVP, CNBC Business News

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