What Exactly is the Job Description of the President of the United States?

“What exactly is the job description of the President of the United States?”

My brother asked this the other day, over a couple of beers. “I’ve been trying to figure this out for years,” he continued. “YEARS.”

“Well, what do you think it is?” I asked him.

“Honestly,” he said, “I still have no idea.”

We each considered this thought for a bit. As it turned out, neither did I.

“I know what I’d like it to be,” I acknowledged upon reflection. “But I’m not sure that’s actually what it entails.”

We spent the next 30 minutes spit-balling different ideas of what the President might have as their 2–3 main responsibilities. Here’s what I came up with:

What A President Does:
1. Recruit experts, delegate responsibly

2. Serve as internal (domestic) and external (international) face to the people

3. Be decisive on key decisions (military, among them) and OK with the consequences

“So should the President themselves be an expert?” my brother asked.

“I don’t think so,” I replied. “But they need to know how to manage a team of experts and trust them to do their work effectively. They need to be the kind of person who can look at a policy or a problem or dozens of pages of documentation and pull out the one question that’s going to give that entire department a change to their strategy. Kind of like a VC.”

But his question got me wondering: What is their job description, really? Judging solely from my own experience in voting in four Presidential elections, how close was I to getting it right?

What Does a President Do?

I decided to spend a little more time digging into this question.

Before you point out the obvious, yes, I realize that this may have been a better question to ask myself before voting in the U.S. Election just one week earlier. But when it came down to it, I’ll be the first to admit that wasn’t thinking about the big-picture when I stood in the polling booth last Tuesday. Like so many others, in the 2020 U.S. election, I resorted simply to a binary mode of decision-making: Offense or Defense.

I imagine this line of thinking wasn’t exactly what our Founding Fathers had imagined when coming up with the system for how we might elect our future leaders. But I can understand how it happened.

If I had been in the proverbial room where it happened 250 years ago, I’m sure I too would have over-optimistically assumed the best intent from every voter and envisioned a future where every American would go out of their way to understand the nuances of the role and the strengths and weaknesses of each contender.

Someone may have asked: “What happens if people stop acting as individuals and instead vote solely to maintain the status quo of their closest network? What if they stop thinking?”

“Impossible,” I imagine one of the intellectuals saying, quill pen in hand. “Have more faith in Americans. We worked so hard for this. People will see all sides of issues, respect the role, and educate themselves if they don’t”

And yet here we are… living in a world where anonymous avatars ask and answer questions like this into the ether. Summing up the nation’s most powerful office in a single line in a tiny text box.

How to Hire a President

When hiring in the business world, we tend to look for people who’ve “been there, done that.”

Recruiters and hiring manager spend hours scouring profiles of candidates with perfectly manicured lists of past experiences before deciding who to interview. We read resumes with the precision of a hawk hunting its prey, dinging candidates based on errant typos, gaps in their employment history, or the fact that they excluded their GPA and SAT score. And that’s just for mid-level management role.

At the executive level, we pay tens of thousands of dollars to executive search firms to help us make key hires. We conduct 360-degree evaluations of our leadership teams to figure out what gaps might exist before recruiting someone new. We come up with intense behavioral assessments rooted in psychology to help us self-categorize ourselves. “I’m an ENTP,” you might tell someone in a job interview, and they nod knowingly, as if that’s supposed to tell them anything about your capacity to complete the task at hand.

But for a job where we have only had 44 total individuals take on the role and 5 still-living subject matter experts, we can’t exactly elect a President based on…well…past precedent. That sample size is barely statistically significant enough to draw any conclusions on relevant background, experience, or skillsets. So what exactly should we be looking for? Does anyone know?

I decided to turn to Twitter. “What does a President do, really?” I asked to my favorite online echo-chamber. I got three responses, all in perfectly concise, Tweet-length format:

  1. “Set domestic goals, lead foreign policy.”
  2. “1) Set and communicate a vision for the country 2) recruit and retain the best people 3) make sure there’s cash in the bank.”
  3. “President = CEO of a Fortune 500 Company imo. 1. Be the public face/ambassador. Work for shareholders directly (the American people), while navigating the industry (the world). 2. Put together a talented supporting team (cabinet, judges, etc) to achieve goals. 3. Be a leader.”

I noticed a few trends among these responses: First, a general sense that this person should serve as a public face and visionary. Second, that they need to recruit a strong supporting staff. And third, that they need to serve as some sort of model for the somewhat vague notion of leadership.

I don’t know about you, but this still seemed pretty blurry to me. I also wondered how our perceptions as everyday citizens might skew dramatically from what’s actually involved in the day-to-day life of running a country.

But it’s not like you can just go to Indeed.com and get the official job description for the President of the United States. (Believe me, I tried.)

A President’s Official Duties

Of course, there’s no clear path to the Oval Office.

This makes it impossible to compare backgrounds and identify candidates based on prior experience or whether they meet the minimum requirements. At the end of the day, the list of “must-haves” to hold the office is woefully short:

  • Be a natural-born citizen of the United States
  • Be at least 35 years old
  • Have been a resident of the United States for 14 years

This says nothing about educational background, past experience, certifications required, or successful initiatives unveiled. It doesn’t touch on one’s ability to coordinate a nation-wide fundraising effort for campaign donations, to calm grieving people by phone or by teleprompter, to be able to mentally context shift every 5–10 minutes for an entire day, for 4 or 8 years. Nor does it give us any indication as to whether we might look to politicians, engineers, teachers, or artists to find our perfect fit.

If we’re to take away anything from this short list of requirements, it’s this: You must know what it means to be an American. And be far enough removed from your youth to garner resect.

As much as I’d love to be able to download and compare the one-page resumes of all past Presidents to get a sense of the scope of the job, that’s realistically not going to happen.

Since the background requirements as so broad, we must turn instead to the job duties. Which also doesn’t really exist in an exhaustive way. The closest I could find was an explanation on whitehouse.gov about the role of the President in the context of the executive branch. You can read their full overview here.

Here’s my distilled version:

Official Duties: President of the United States:

  • Serve as Head of State, Head of Government, Commander-in-Chief
  • Oversee enforcement of laws by Congress
  • Appoint 50+ department heads
  • Sign legislation into law or veto bills
  • Negotiate & sign treaties
  • Issue executive orders
  • Extend pardons
  • Give annual updates (State of the Union)

When I coach people in the business world about looking for jobs, I encourage them to review the job description carefully and pull out not only the tasks, but the underlying skills needed to complete those tasks.

So I decided to extrapolate this short list of responsibilities into a broader buckets of skills required to be President. Here’s what I came up with:

Skills Needed to be President of the United States:

Serve as Head of State, Head of Government, Commander-in-Chief
- Give annual updates (State of the Union)
- Extend pardons

Appoints 50+ department heads

Oversees enforcement of laws by Congress
- Sign legislation into law or veto bills
- Issue executive orders

Negotiate & sign treaties

The One Thing That’s Not On Any List

I have long thought that the process of electing Presidents is a little bit skewed. That’s to say, the act of campaigning to become President is wholly separated from the actual act of governing. So much so that it seems nearly impossible that anyone can exceed in both simultaneously.

But after going through this exercise of clustering the key Presidential responsibilities into these four buckets, it really hit me that there’s an under-valued, almost invisible skill, that we miss with all the noise of the debates, the speeches, the email marketing, and the relentless ad campaigns: Listening.

How can you be heard by millions if you aren’t listening first? How is it possible to oversee governance without hearing out the equally important opinions from all political parties and stakeholders? How can you create compromises and negotiate with international leaders without understanding where they are coming from? How can you manage and motivate 50+ department heads for four grueling years if they don’t feel like they have a seat at the table?

Regardless of outcome, the one thing our 2020 election has made clear is this: As a country, we aren’t listening to each other. We’re yelling. Yelling into our social media feeds, yelling on the news, yelling in political briefings, yelling at protests, and even yelling in our own backyards. At this point, it doesn’t even matter what we’re yelling about anymore. Cats. Cars. Clowns. All I know is that — when so many people are yelling, nobody is listening. And maybe that’s the one thing we need the most right now.

VP @ BolsterTalent, alum of @USV, @StackOverflow and @NorthwesternU, board member at @CompSci_High and @NUalumni, co-founder of #BeyondCodingNYC