A head of state is the chief public representative of a nation-state, federation or commonwealth, whose role generally includes personifying the continuity and legitimacy of the state and exercising powers, functions and duties granted to the head of state in the country's constitution. In Charles de Gaulle's words, describing the role he envisaged for the French president when he wrote the modern French constitution, a head of state should embody "the spirit of the nation" to the nation itself and to the world: une certaine idée de la France.

In a monarchy, the monarch is the head of state. In a republic, the head of state is usually called president, though some leaders have assumed other titles (some used "Head of State" as their only formal title).

Table of contents
1 Roles of a Head of State
2 The Head of State and the Government
3 Symbolic role
4 Selection of Heads of State
5 Other Information

Roles of a Head of State

Patrice MacMahon, duc de Magenta
President of the Third French Republic (1875-1879)
controversially dissolved parliament in 1877.
In practical terms, heads of state fulfil a number of criteria;

  • Chief Diplomatic Officer:
    • He or she accredits his or her country's ambassadors, though sending formal Letters of Credence to other heads of state. Without that accreditation, ipso facto an ambassador does not take up a role and receive diplomatic status.
    • He or she receives Letters of Credence, sent by other heads of state accrediting his/her ambassador to the state.
    • He or she signs international treaties on behalf of the state, or has them signed in his/her name by ministers.

Example: under the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany (constitution), Article 59 (1) states -
The Federal President shall represent the Federation in its international relations. He shall conclude treaties with foreign states on behalf of the Federation. He shall accredit and receive envoys.

  • Chief Appointments Officer:
    • He or she appoints all the key officials in the state, including members of the cabinet, the prime minister (if there is one), key judicial figures and all major office holders. Some countries have exceptions - under Article 4 of the Instrument of Government 1974, the constitution of Sweden grants to the parliamentary speaker the role of formally appointing the Prime Minister. In practice parliamentary numbers may make the decision a formality. The last time a United Kingdom monarch actually had a choice over who to pick to be prime minister occurred in 1963, when Queen Elizabeth II had to choose a successor to Harold Macmillan.
    • He or she may dismiss office-holders. In most states, this may only be done on the binding advice of another office-holder (Example: Irish ministers can be dismissed by the President of Ireland on the advice of the Taoiseach (prime minister)). In some instances, the head of state may be able to dismiss an office holder themselves. An example is the ability of the President of the Fifth French Republic to replace his Prime Minister at will. Many heads of state or their representatives have the theoretical power to dismiss any office-holder but it is exceptionally rarely used. In one controversial case, the Governor-General of Australia, Sir John Kerr in 1975 dismissed Prime Minister Gough Whitlam over a parliamentary deadlock that had resulted in Whitlam's government losing Supply (ie, access to exchequer funds), but which had not been followed by the standard request for a parliamentary dissolution. (Because it was the upper house not the lower house that blocked Supply, Whitlam controversially believed that he did not have to request an immediate dissolution.)

Chief Executive Officer: In the vast majority of states, whether republics or monarchies, executive authority (ie, the source of governmental power) is vested in the head of state. Even in parliamentary systems where governments are directly answerable to parliament, governments may still in theory exercise powers via the head of state, producing such terms as Her Majesty's Government or His Excellency's Government. Examples are found in, among other states, Australia, Austria, Canada Denmark, France, Italy and the United Kingdom. The few exceptions include Republic of Ireland and Sweden.

Example No 1. (Victorian era monarchical constitution): Under Chapter II, Section 61 of the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act, 1900
The executive power of the Commonwealth is vested in the Queen and is exercisable by the Governor-General as the Queen's representative, and extends to the execution and maintenance of this Constitution, and of the laws of the Commonwealth.

Example No 2. (mid 20th century monarchical constitution): According to Section 12 of the Constitution of Denmark 1953,
Subject to the limitations laid down in this Constitution Act the King shall have the supreme authority in all the affairs of the Realm, and he shall exercise such supreme authority through the Ministers.

Example No 3. (modern republican constitution): According to Article 26 (2) of the 1975 Constitution of Greece
The executive power shall be exercised by the President of the Republic and by the government.

  • Summon and Dissolve Parliament:
    • A head of state is often empowered to summon and dissolve parliaments. In most parliamentary systems, that is done on the advice of the prime minister or cabinet. In some parliamentary systems and in some presidential systems, the head of state may on their own initiative do so. Some states however have fixed term parliaments, with no option of bringing forward elections. Other systems have fixed terms, but the chief of state retains the authority to dissolve the legislature in certain circumstances (Article II, Section 3, of the United States Constitution). Where a prime minister has lost the confidence of parliament, some states allow the head of state to refuse a parliamentary dissolution, where one is requested, forcing the prime minister's resignation.
Example: Article 13.2.2. of the Constitution of Ireland states:
The President may in absolute discretion refuse to dissolve Dáil Éireann on the advice of a Taoiseach [prime minister] who has ceased to retain the support of a majority in Dáil Éireann

The Federal Council of Switzerland
The seven-member collective Head of State of Switzerland
  • Sign Bills into Law: Most states require that all Bills passed by parliament are signed into law by the Head of State, who by their signature indicates that the Bill was passed in accordance with the correct procedures. This act is formally known as promulgation. Some Commonwealth of Nations states call this procedure granting the Royal Assent.
Example: Section 11.a.1. of the Basic Laws of Israel states:
The President of the State shall sign every Law, other than a Law relating to its powers.
  • Delay or oppose the passage of a bill:Some states allow a head of state some participative role, in so far as they may be empowered to do one or more of the following:
    • veto a Bill (example: The President of the United States can refuse to sign acts of congress into law when he disagrees with them)
    • reserve the Bill to be signed later, or suspend it indefinitely (generally in states with the Royal Prerogative, though it rarely is used)
    • send the Bill to the courts to test its constitutionality (example: the Republic of Ireland)
    • put the Bill to the people in a referendum (example: the Republic of Ireland, if the President is petitioned to do so by one third of the lower house and a majority of the upper house.)

The Head of State and the Government

Emperor Napoleon III
President of the Second French Republic
''made himself Emperor of France (1852-70)
In Presidential systems or in absolute monarchies, a head of state is normally not merely head of state but the active'' chief executive officer of the government. The principal example of this is the United States.

In parliamentary systems, though the head of state may be the nominal chief executive officer of the state, in reality powers are usually exercised by a cabinet, presided over by a Prime Minister who is answerable to parliament. However, exceptions exist even to this; for instance, in some times of exceptional crisis during the 20th century (typically German invasions), the then King of the Belgians has exercised this capacity directly; this shows that such a direct capacity had and may still have a latent existence there, and so possibly elsewhere as well. Most recently, Liechtenstein gave its Prince unprecedented constitutional powers in 2003, including veto of parliament and power to dismiss the government at whim.

In some semi-presidential systems, a president may be an active player in government, with the government answerable in practice both to the head of state and parliament. The most striking example is the current Fifth French Republic. In the French case, where parliament is controlled by the party which the President belonged to, the President is usually the dominant political player in government. Where, however, the 'opposition' to the President control parliament, given that the government is answerable to parliament, the President has little choice but to share power with an 'opposition' government. When this occurs, it is called Cohabitation. In practice, the government controls the internal policy agenda, with the President limiting his role to foreign affairs, subject to the government.

Symbolic role

As the above quote by Charles de Gaulle indicates, one of the most important roles of the modern head of state is being a symbolic national symbol of the nation.

In most countries portraits of the head of state can be found in government offices, airports, libraries, and other buildings of the sort. The idea is to use these portraits to make the public aware of the symbolic connection to the government, a practice that dates back to mediaeval times. Sometimes this practice is taken to excess, and the head of state begins to believe that he is the only symbol of the nation. A personality cult thus ensues, where the image of the head of state is the only visual representation of the country, surpassing other symbols such as the flag, constitution, founding fathers, etc.

In diplomatic affairs, heads of state are often the first person to greet an important foreign visitor. They may also assume a sort of informal "host" role during the VIP's visit, inviting the vistor to a state dinner at his or her mansion or palace, or some other equally hospitable affair.

Selection of Heads of State

Elizabeth II
multiple head of state, as
Queen of the United Kingdom,
Australia, Canada,
New Zealand and other states
Heads of state may:
  • be elected (usually in a republic, with the head of state being called the 'President'. Though the Holy See is a monarchy, its monarch, the pope is elected for life.)
  • inherit the position (in monarchies, where the head of state may be called the King or queen, Prince or Grand Duke or Emperor).
  • seize power: authoritarian rulers often use democratic titles, though some proclaim themselves monarchs. Examples of the latter include Emperor Napoleon III of France and King Zog of Albania. Francisco Franco adopted the formal title Jefe del Estado, or Chief of State, and established himself as regent for a vacant monarchy. Saddam Hussein made himself President of Iraq, and the eccentric North Korean strongman Kim Jong Il bears no title at all, only the 'affectionate' nickname "the Dear Leader."


In some cases, where one person holds multiple headships of state, they may be represented by a Governor-General. Examples are Canada, Australia and New Zealand, where the monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, resides in another of her kingdoms, the United Kingdom, and so is represented by a Governor-General. Nations outside of the UK that recognize Elizabeth II as their Queen are known as Commonwealth Realms, and maintain ties to the monarchy as a recognition of their colonial history.

The Governor-General may fulfill many of the roles of a head of state, but is not legally the head of state, rather an appointed representative of the head of state that can act as the head of state in her absence from that constitutional monarchy. Some may consider the Governor-General as the de facto head of state of a country as the monarch rarely exercises the reserve powers of the crown. See, for example, the Queen of Canada.


Other Information

Every head of state is provided with a state residence or residences, often called a 'palace'. Among the most famous such residences are:

See also: Loss of Supply, President, Prime Minister, Monarch, Governor-General, List of national leaders