Why is it important recognize the distinction of the roles of "head of state" and "head of government?"

Expert Answers
booboosmoosh eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There is a very distinct difference between a head of state and a head of government. The head of government generally oversees the actions of a "cabinet," as is the case with the Prime Minister with the Parliament in England. In this case there is a non-executive head of state, but that person (Elizabeth II) does not exert the power that the Parliament does. This has not always been the case, as seen with English monarchs. Until Charles I was unseated and executed in the 1600s, the monarch always held the supreme power within the government. At this time—1649—when the Protectorate was formed and there was no longer a monarch, the power came into the hands of Parliament, and it has been so since. Even when Charles II returned from exile to take the throne, Parliament held onto its power, and monarchs had...

...limited executive authority.

This is a very different situation as compared to the executive head of state who is...

...a chief public representative...

The head of state does not always have the title of "president," however, where the Americas are concerned, there is a president who is the head of state: this is called the "presidential system." In some instances, a head of state may be someone who has assumed power in a non-democratic way, as is the case with dictators. However, the head of state has executive power and is separate from the legislative branch of the government. However...

Presidential governments make no distinction between the positions of  head of state and head of government, both of which are held by the president.

Therefore, my understanding is that the head of government is a person who oversees a cabinet—this cabinet makes the decisions under the guidance of the head of government—who has no executive power. Whereas a head of state is...

...any head of state who actually governs and is independent of the legislature.

The power rests in two very different places with these distinctive types of leadership. The head of government does not rule independently, while the "executive" head of state does. It is important to make this distinction in order to understand who is actually responsible for leading a country: based on the political hierarchy in place within a certain country.


Additional Sources:



krcavnar | Student

The difference in head of state and head of government is determined by the type of political system of the country.  For instance, in the United Kingdom, Queen Elizabeth is considered the head of state; however she does not hold any executive power and simply plays a symbolic role.  The head of government is considered to be the Prime Minister.  In the United States the President is the head of state and also the head of government as he actively exercises executive powers in both foreign policy and on domestic affairs.

There is also a hybrid type, a semi-presidential system, in which the head of state must pick a Prime Minister to cohabit the position of head of state when the parliament or legislature is held by the opposing party of the president’s.  In this particular system the President is generally concerned with foreign affairs and the Prime Minister would control internal policies within the country.