Chain of Command
Kernel hackers are the developers who work on the kernel. Some do it for pay, some as a hobby, but nearly all for fun. Kernel hackers with significant contributions are listed in the CREDITS file in the root of the kernel source tree.
Most parts of the kernel have an associated maintainer. The maintainer is the individual (or individuals) who is in charge of specific parts of the kernel. For example, each individual driver has an associated maintainer. Each kernel subsystemfor example, networkingalso has an associated maintainer. The maintainer for a specific driver or subsystem is usually listed in the file MAINTAINERS, which is also located in the root of the kernel source tree.
There is a special type of maintainer, known as the kernel maintainer. This individual actually maintains the kernel tree itself. Historically, Linus maintains the development kernel (where the real fun is) and the stable kernel for some period after development ends. Shortly after a development kernel becomes a stable kernel, Linus passes the torch to one of the top kernel developers. That developer continues to maintain the tree while Linus begins work on the new development tree. In this fashion, the 2.0, 2.2, and 2.4 kernels are still actively maintained.
Despite the rumors, there is no cabal. Really.