Nurse Manager / Nurse Leader Careers

What is a Nurse Manager and Clinical Nurse Leader?

What Does a Nurse Manager and Nurse Leader Do?

Nursing professionals with strong leadership qualities and behaviors often pursue roles as nurse managers and clinical nurse leaders. A clinical nurse leader (CNL) coordinates medical care and implements evidence-based practice to deliver quality patient care. They may work with small groups of patients, usually with specific and related needs.

In contrast, nurse managers work with and manage entire units of patients to provide direct patient care. Both of these professionals function in leadership roles and provide direct patient care on different levels. Both CNLs and nurse leaders deliver crucial services within the greater healthcare system, overseeing and managing cohorts of patients to ensure the highest quality care.

How Are Nurse Managers and Nurse Leaders Different?

Though nurse managers and clinical nurse leaders often have overlapping and similar duties, the two roles require different responsibilities. The table below outlines some of these differences.

Nurse Manager
Clinical Nurse Leader
  • More task-oriented
  • Manage nursing staff
  • Ensure unit operations run smoothly
  • Oversee scheduling, patient care planning, and budgeting
  • Facilitate professional development opportunities
  • More focused on higher-level operations
  • Set and evolve policies
  • Monitor quality measures
  • Ensure regulatory compliance
  • Deal with fiscal responsibilities
Minimum Educational Requirements
Average Salary

Source: PaysScale

Who Should Consider Becoming a Nurse Manager or Nurse Leader?

Students interested in pursuing nursing careers often feel a strong desire to help others. Nursing professionals possess skills in providing quality patient care and a strong commitment to excellence in healthcare. Nurses also exhibit humility, a willingness to listen and learn, and a strong sense of integrity.

Nurse managers oversee the nursing care provided within an entire unit or department, supervising all nurses in that area to ensure the implementation of effective, efficient care. This requires organization, time management, and critical thinking skills. As supervisors, nurse managers must work effectively in groups, practice delegation where necessary, and understand the overall needs and goals of their department or unit.

Clinical nurse leaders strive to improve the quality of patient care. To meet this goal, they must emphasize collaboration in their practice and work efficiently alongside other medical professionals. In this more advanced position, nurse leaders serve as the go-to authority for day-to-day issues and questions from the team.

Like other nurses, nurse leaders must communicate clearly and effectively with other staff members to implement care plans and evidence-based treatments. This emerging and developing new role in nursing promotes research in outcomes-based practice, making it ideal for nurses wishing to further the field through leadership.

Why Should I Enter Nurse Leadership?

Students, current practicing nurses, and individuals interested in pursuing nursing may wish to become nurse managers or nurse leaders to take on more advanced roles in the field. Individuals more inclined towards leadership and management positions may thrive as nurse leaders or managers and can enter positions with high earning potential. The current nursing shortage across the country makes right now an ideal time to enter the profession.

Educational Paths to Becoming a Nurse Manager and Clinical Nurse Leader

What Education is Needed to Enter Nurse Leadership?

Nurse Manager:

  • Nurse managers must hold at least a BSN. However, some employers specifically seek out graduates with an MSN. Nurses of all levels must hold professional licensure as an RN to practice, and nurse managers may need an additional 3-5 years of nursing experience.

Clinical Nurse Leader:

  • To practice as a CNL, the MSN serves as the standard minimum degree. Learners can also pursue a program specifically for clinical nurse leadership exist, while RN-to-MSN programs streamline the process for working nurses earning a graduate degree. This advanced role requires a high level of clinical competence and knowledge and requires an RN license.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Nurse Manager or Clinical Nurse Leader?

Students typically take 4-6 years to become a nurse manager or CNL with education and field experience requirements. Each career requires different levels of experience and education, and degree completion times may vary.

What Will I Learn in a Clinical Nurse Leader Online Program?

Holding a general BSN often allows a professional to become a nurse manager. By gaining nursing experience and earning certifications, you can develop skills for a nurse manager role. However, aspiring clinical nurse leaders may pursue specialized MSN programs that provide the skills necessary for that career.

  • Communication: The CNL exam requires students to possess strong communication skills. CNL programs often emphasize effective communication, particularly between nurses and patients along with nurse leaders and their team.
  • Research in Evidence-Based Practice: The CNL role maintains strong foundations in research and evidence-based practice. Students in CNL programs often take multiple courses in research methods and evidence-based practice, exploring existing research and conducting new inquiries.
  • Leadership: CNL students often study leadership theory and explore its implications in clinical practice. Courses in leadership may emphasize professionalism, healthcare-specific leadership skills, and business practices.
  • Mentoring in a Clinical Setting: Nurse leaders often serve as mentors and educators to other nurses on their team. CNL programs equip students to become successful mentors, including knowledge of human behavior, educational psychology, and feedback systems.
  • Business: Clinical nurse leader programs often integrate skills in business and finance to prepare students to work as administrative leaders and liaisons within their department or unit. This includes skills in economics and finance management in healthcare settings.

Certification and Licensing Requirements

RN Licensure

  • Whether you wish to pursue a career as a nurse manager or a CNL, you must hold a valid RN license to practice. Specific licensure requirements for RNs vary by state but generally include graduating from an approved nursing program and passing the NCLEX-RN exam. States may also require a criminal background check. For specific information, check with your state's board of nursing.

Certified Nurse Manager and Leader

  • Offered by the American Organization for Nursing Leadership (AONL), the CNML certification serves as an industry-recognized credential. All candidates must possess RN licensure. Other prerequisites for this certification include holding at least an associate degree in nursing, followed by a minimum of 5,200 hours of practice as an RN. Minimum hour requirements decrease for graduates with advanced degrees. The exam ($300 for AONL members and $450 for nonmembers) includes 115 multiple-choice questions. Candidates must recertify every three years.

Clinical Nurse Leader Certification

  • To hold the title of clinical nurse leader, candidates must earn this certification awarded by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN). Prior to earning this certification, candidates must hold RN licensure and graduate from an accredited CNL master's program. The certification requires a multiple-choice exam which costs $350 at a nursing school or $425 at a testing center. Certified CNLs must renew their certification every five years. This certification serves as the only way to earn the official CNL designation.

Certified in Executive Nursing Practice

  • The CENP credential, awarded by the AONL, requires candidates to hold RN licensure. Additionally, candidates must possess either a bachelor's degree with four years of experience in executive nursing or a master's degree with at least two years of professional experience. The exam ($325 for AONL members and $450 for nonmembers) includes 175 multiple-choice questions. Nurses with the CENP designation must participate in continuing education to renew the certification every three years.


To become a clinical nurse leader, you must earn your degree from an accredited nursing program. Accreditation, or the process by which third-party accrediting agencies vet and verify the quality of education at a college or university, comes with three basic distinctions: regional, national, and programmatic.

Overall, institutions hold regional or national accreditation, and individual programs within an institution sometimes hold programmatic accreditation. Finding an accredited program is crucial for nurses, as they must graduate from an accredited program to sit for the required RN licensure exam. A degree from an unaccredited institution may not qualify graduates to work as RNs, nurse managers, or CNLs, so prospective nursing students should always check that their prospective school holds accreditation.

Nurses should pay attention to overall institutional accreditation, along with programmatic accreditation. Two central accrediting bodies provide accreditation for nursing programs: the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) and the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing, Inc (ACEN).

Both of these organizations offer lists and databases of accredited programs, so students can verify if their chosen program holds the necessary programmatic accreditation. Many states possess specific requirements for students sitting for the RN licensure exam. Additionally, master's programs for CNLs may look for applicants who hold a bachelor's degree from a program that holds accreditation from one of these organizations.

Career Outlook

As the baby-boom generation ages, the country has experienced a shortage of qualified nurses to care for them. Due to this shortage, job growth in nursing fields continues to expand exponentially as the demand for nurses rises. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects jobs for registered nurses to grow by 15% and jobs for advanced practice nurses to grow by 31% in the coming years, rates significantly higher than the average across all occupations. Naturally, this demand for nurses also increases the need for nurse managers and leaders.

Work Environments

Not all nurse managers and CNLs work specifically in hospitals or large healthcare facilities. In fact, these professionals work in leadership roles in a variety of industries and job settings. In addition to hospitals, nurse managers and leaders also work in outpatient care centers, private physicians' offices, and in home health services.

Industry Description
General Hospital Nurse leaders and managers in general hospital settings may oversee specific units or departments, coordinating with other healthcare providers to implement patient care. They may also take on administrative roles.
Outpatient Care Center Outpatient care centers include rehabilitation units and substance abuse clinics. Nurse managers and leaders may supervise a smaller group of specialized staff, including mental health counselors and physical therapists.
Offices of Physicians Nurses working in small physician's offices work closely with patients and alongside practice physicians to administer care. They may oversee administrative staff and assist with tasks like billing and coding.
Skilled Nursing Facilities Skilled nursing facilities offer care to patients generally on a short-term basis. Nurse leaders and managers oversee nursing staff that provides specialized care intended to treat specific medical issues.
Home Health Care Services Nurse managers and leaders working in home healthcare services coordinate teams of caregivers and nurses to provide patient care in the patient's home. Managers and leaders may also supervise clerical and administrative work, including taking up reports from staff in the field.

Nurse Manager Salary

A nurse manager's salary can vary based on factors like experience level. The more experience a nurse manager holds, the higher their earning potential. The table below outlines the average salary for nurse managers, based on experience level.

Clinical Nurse Leader Salary

The table below provides data on the average salaries for CNLs based on their experience level. Generally, more experience can lead to a higher salary. However, other factors like geographic location and the specific employment industry can also impact earnings.


Pursuing a job as a nurse manager or clinical nurse leader can provide a fulfilling, rewarding career opportunity for those who aspire to make a difference and help others. For more information, read about the different paths to becoming a nurse.

Additional Resources for Nurse Leadership

AACN Clinical Nurse Leader

AACN provides a comprehensive information source for becoming a clinical nurse leader. The website offers information on what the job entails, exam review materials, and other educational resources for aspiring nurse leaders. Students can also take advantage of the resources on finding a program.

Clinical Nurse Leader Association

The CNLA offers practicing and aspiring nurse leaders a forum to network and further the profession through collaboration. Members can also access continuing education opportunities and conferences. Students may join at a discounted rate and participate in special mentorship and shadowing programs.

Graduate Student Nursing Academy

Both aspiring nurse leaders and managers can benefit from joining the AACN Graduate Student Nursing Academy, designed to supplement graduate nursing programs with leadership opportunities, webinars, and access to a special career network. Members can also access a monthly bulletin and special members-only scholarships.

Learning Nurse Resources Network

This unique network provides supplemental learning opportunities for nursing students and practicing nurses. The website offers online learning modules, including videos, games, quizzes, and self-assessments. The network also features professional development resources, a special nursing job board, and other resources to help nurses.

U.S. Graduate Nursing Resources

Provided by the Department of State, this online resource offers information for students interested in continuing their nursing education in the United States. This guide also introduces the NursingCAS, an online, centralized application system utilized by many nursing programs around the country, allowing prospective students to streamline the application process.