It's never easy to lead a company. It's even harder when the economy is throwing you more knuckleballs than fastballs over the plate.

Take a breather, Warren Buffett. We're giving the defending 2007 champion a break this year. Not that there's anything wrong with Berkshire Hathaway (NYSE:BRK-B), mind you. We just don't want the Oracle of Omaha hogging up all of the hardware. 

In fact, none of the finalists from last year's list are in the running this time around. The five nominees for 2008 that we've culled for your consideration are:

  • John Thain, Merrill Lynch
  • Reed Hastings, Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX)
  • Steve Ells, Chipotle (NYSE:CMG)
  • Alan Mulally, Ford (NYSE:F)
  • John Allison, BB&T (NYSE:BBT)

John Thain
Thain cut his teeth as the master architect of the global consolidation at NYSE Euronext (NYSE:NYX) before moving on to Merrill Lynch. 2008 wasn't a great year for the investment banker, but at least Merrill made it to 2009 by getting great-for-the-times terms in its sale to Bank of America (NYSE:BAC).

Reed Hastings
Hastings has been able to consistently grow the subscriber base for his DVD rental service. With the value of unlimited rentals by mail -- and now digitally delivered -- proving to be recession-resistant, Hastings made my shortlist of winning chieftains. Fellow Fool Anders Bylund agrees.

Steve Ells
Ells has seen his burrito-rolling empire come undone lately. After a streak of routinely trouncing analyst profit expectations since its IPO, dinged margins have dealt Chipotle a few mortal blows in recent quarters. The upside here is that comps remain positive at the restaurant level. Finding an eatery concept that is growing without caving in to $1 burgers is a refreshing find these days.

Alan Mulally
Mullaly may seem like an odd name in the list, but consider Ford's fate relative to its two domestic automaker rivals. Sure, Mulally blew it by taking a corporate jet to the bailout hearings, but Ford will be the last stateside carmaker to tap the government's bailout money.

John Allison
Allison retired as CEO at the end of 2008, but the BB&T leader merits more than just a shot at a lifetime achievement award. He has successfully assembled a collection of community banks, conservatively guiding the company in a sector that went subprime-wild.  

To whom will Buffett hand the prize this year? That's where you come in. Vote for who you think should be the Fool's choice for Best CEO of 2008.