What is a Clinical Nurse Leader?

What is a Clinical Nurse Leader?

A clinical nurse leader (CNL) is a relatively new nursing specialty that continues to grow. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that employment for medical and health services managers will grow 32% from 2019 and 2029.

CNLs prioritize quality patient care by combining research, bedside care, data analysis, and communication. Clinical nurse leaders identify potential problems and implement evidence-based practices to improve quality of care and patient outcomes.

CNLS work in various environments. Many find employment in hospitals, nursing homes, medical centers, and community health centers. Since CNLs help various health departments communicate to improve patient care, they can find work in almost any healthcare facility.

Clinical nurse leaders identify potential problems and implement evidence-based practices to improve quality of care and patient outcomes.

Individuals who enjoy bedside care and want to make a difference in the nursing community might enjoy a CNL career. The position also requires significant dedication. Aspiring CNLs must pass the registered nurse (RN) licensure exam, complete a master’s degree, and earn CNL certification.

Learn more about the educational requirements, job outlook, and helpful resources for aspiring CNLs below.

Similar Specializations to a Clinical Nurse Leader

Since the nursing field includes many specialities, numerous nursing leadership positions exist. You can find several nursing specialties similar to a CNL in the chart below.

Description Required Education Licensure and Certification Requirements Career Titles Within This Specialization
Clinical Nurse Specialist A clinical nurse specialist (CNS) is an advanced practice registered nurse. They work in acute and primary care, public health, policy development, research, and management. Master’s degree or higher RN licensure; certification from the American Nurses Credentialing Center (ANCC) Neonatal clinical nurse specialist, public health clinical nurse specialist
Nurse Educator Nurse educators instruct professional and aspiring nurses. They may work in universities, hospitals, or businesses teaching others. Master’s degree or higher RN licensure; certification for nurse educators through the National League for Nursing (NLN) is ideal but not required Professor, nursing education consultant, nursing instructor, nursing professional development specialist
Nurse Administrator Nurse administrators occupy leadership positions through managing general operations, finances, and staff. Bachelor’s degree or higher, although a master’s degree is often preferred RN licensure (optional); executive-board certification (NE-BC) from the ANCC; certified executive nursing practice (CENP); and certified nurse manager and leader (CNML) from the American Organization for Nurse Leadership (AONL) Nurse manager, chief nursing officer, nursing director
Nurse Executive Nurse executives apply business knowledge to the administrative nursing field. They manage new policies, health professional networks, budgets, healthcare teams, and continuing education courses. Master’s degree or higher in business or nursing RN licensure (optional); NE-BC or nurse executive advanced certification from the ANCC, CENP or CNML from the AONL Chief nursing executive, chief nursing officer, executive nurse leader, CEO
Nursing Informatics Nursing informatics combines technology with the nursing field. Professionals improve patient care with new data and record systems. Bachelor’s degree or higher RN licensure; informatics nursing certification from the ANCC required for advanced positions Nursing informatics clinician, nurse informaticist, chief nursing informatics officer

Clinical Nurse Leader vs Clinical Nurse Specialist Clinical Nurse Leader vs Executive Nurse Leader Differences Between Nurse Executives, Administrators, and Managers

Explore More NP Specializations and Subspecializations:

History of Clinical Nurse Leaders

The clinical nurse leader profession has existed for less than 20 years. The nursing specialty began as a response to extensive research proving an excessive amount of human error in the medical field. For example, a 1999 report stated that over half of the adverse events in Utah and Colorado hospitals were preventable errors.

The Institute of Medicine responded to these findings in a 2000 publication calling for healthcare reforms. After a few years, the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) assigned a task force to create the clinical nurse leader role. In 2004, various institutions finalized the first CNL master’s program curriculum. From 2006-2007, over 100 students took the first CNL certification exam.

Since creating the CNL position, it has grown in popularity. From 2013 and 2017 alone, the percentage of RNs with a master’s degree grew from 13.8% to 17.1%. This number may likely increase with further CNL integration. Just 15 years after its creation, over 90 CNL master’s programs exist, and more than 300 schools teach clinical nurse leader skills.

What Does a Clinical Nurse Leader Do?

Clinical nurse leaders prioritize improving patient care and outcomes. This position plays a critical role in general healthcare, as the patient’s well being takes precedence.

CNLs also work to improve communication between healthcare providers and patients. They advocate on behalf of the patient, inform them of doctors’ decisions and approaches, and connect them with third-party healthcare providers.

CNLs coordinate the nursing staff, monitor data, and apply new policies to improve efficiency and accuracy. Clinical nurse leaders face tremendous responsibility and long hours, but the satisfaction of helping others often makes the job worthwhile.

To handle the diverse tasks and excel in a leadership role, CNLs need multiple skills like the ones listed below.

Key Soft Skills for Clinical Nurse Leaders

  • Compassionate Leadership: Nurses generally possess a caring and gentle spirit that helps them work with numerous patients in poor health. As a leader, the expectation for a positive, caring attitude increases because CNLs set an example for their team members.
  • Communication: Since CNLs connect patients with nurses, doctors, and other healthcare professionals, they must possess stellar oral and written communication skills. They need to present their ideas clearly and actively listen to others to provide the best care.
  • Dedication: Becoming a clinical nurse leader requires dedication by completing six years of education and clinical requirements. Once in a CNL position, professionals remain dedicated to excellent patient care and leading a successful nursing team.
  • Responsibility: Anyone in a leadership position must show responsibility, especially those in charge of patients’ lives. CNLs should understand the job requirements and take them seriously.

Key Hard Skills for Clinical Nurse Leaders

  • Research Skills: A large part of a clinical nurse leader’s job involves researching new policies, techniques, and practices to implement in the facility. CNLs must understand where to find reliable new information and how to quickly search for specific topics.
  • Technologically Adept: As a team leader, CNLs often handle new healthcare technology and instruct others on how to use it. Clinical nurse leaders must adapt to the continually evolving technology world to provide the best patient care.
  • Management: CNLs need stellar management skills. They must organize vast data, patient and team schedules, and research. Plus, they need to understand which tasks to prioritize and make swift decisions under pressure.
  • Teaching: As a team leader, CNLs often teach other nurses and healthcare workers about new policies, methods, or technological tools. They need patience and teaching skills to ensure everyone understands the processes and executes them efficiently.

A Day in the Life of a Clinical Nurse Leader

CNLs typically experience fast-paced days filled with diverse responsibilities. As leaders, they must connect with their nursing team, handle pressing issues, and communicate with various healthcare professionals, families, and patients. Clinical nurse leaders also coordinate patient care, analyze potential risks, and research practices to improve patient well being.

To better understand a CNL’s daily responsibilities, follow the link below. A Day in the Life of a Clinical Nurse Leader

Clinical Nurse Leadership Salary and Career Outlook

The CNL career is a relatively new addition to the nursing field. The BLS projects a 32% surge in medical and health service management positions and a 7% increase in RN positions from 2019-2029.

The number of CNL-certified nurses has grown exponentially over the past 15 years. According to the Commission on Nurse Certification, only 83 nurses held a CNL certification in 2006 compared to over 8,600 in July 2021. The field continues to grow, offering a positive job outlook for degree-seekers.

The BLS projects a 32% surge in medical and health service management positions and a 7% increase in RN positions from 2019-2029.

Payscale reported an average annual salary of $83,180 for CNLs in July 2021. The top salaries for these professionals reach over $100,000. Many factors may influence pay, including an individual’s experience and local demand. For example, some states — like Delaware, New Mexico, and Wyoming have less than 10 active CNLs, while California houses almost 1,400 CNLs.

Clinical Nurse Leader

Annual Average Salary


$83,180


Source: PayScale

Learn More About Salary and Job Forecast for Clinical Nurse Leaders

How to Become a Clinical Nurse Leader

To become clinical nurse leaders, students must first earn a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN), which usually takes about four years. Graduates then sit for the RN licensure exam. Next, individuals apply for a master of science in nursing (MSN) program specializing in clinical nursing leadership.

Nurses who get their RN licensure after a two-year associate degree in nursing (ADN) program must still complete a BSN degree or apply for an RN-MSN program. A typical MSN program lasts about two years, while an RN-MSN program may take three or more years.

After completing an MSN program and the required clinical hours, graduates must pass the clinical nurse leader certification exam with the AACN.

To learn more about each step of the process, explore the following links.

Use these steps to prepare for your future as a CNL. Steps to Becoming a Clinical Nurse Leader Narrow down your college search. Clinical Nurse Leader Degree Programs

Online Clinical Nurse Leader Programs
Plenty of exceptional CNL programs offer online classes. Choose from the top institutions and earn a degree while working.


Learn more about the CNL certification. Certification for Clinical Nurse Leaders

How to Earn NP Certification
Nurse practitioners hold a similar position to CNLs. Explore what education, exams, and experience you need for an NP certification.

Resources for Clinical Nurse Leaders

Professional Organizations for Clinical Nurse Leaders

  • Clinical Nurse Leader Association

    As the only organization specifically for clinical nurse leaders, the CNLA offers unique benefits to students and professionals. Members attend conferences, participate in mentoring opportunities, and form networking connections with the primary goal of growing the CNL position.

  • American Nurses Association

    Over 4 million registered nurses form the ANA, making it an impactful organization. Members shape the future of nursing by impacting new policies and advocating for changes. As a national group, each state offers local chapters with unique benefits.

  • American Organization for Nursing Leadership

    Nurse leaders occupy various positions, including CNLs. The AONL offers a place for all types of nurse leaders to come together in education and research to improve the field. In just ten years, the AONL has gained 10,000 members.

  • Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society of Nursing

    Nursing students founded Sigma almost 100 years ago. It has since grown into a large global effort to create nurse leaders and revolutionize the field. Students and nursing professionals alike can join Sigma and enjoy continuing nursing education courses, find career opportunities, and network with other nurse leaders.

See More NP Organizations

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is a CNL?

    The clinical nurse leader (CNL) position arose to improve overall patient care. CNLs hold a master’s degree and handle quality improvement, care coordination, and risk assessment.

  • Is a clinical nurse leader the same as a registered nurse?

    A clinical nurse does not hold the same responsibilities as a registered nurse. However, to become a CNL, you must first pass the RN exam. Clinical nurse leaders are registered nurses with more education and additional certification.

  • Can a clinical nurse leader prescribe medications?

    No, a clinical nurse leader cannot prescribe medications. Advanced practice registered nurses, including nurse practitioners and certified registered nurse anesthetists, hold prescriptive authority under state guidelines. Since CNLs do not fall under the APRN category, they cannot prescribe medications.

  • How many CNL certifications are there?

    The Commission on Nurse Certification oversees the CNL certification process, offering it to those with graduate degrees in the field.

  • Are clinical nurse leader jobs in high demand?

    As the newest nursing position, the clinical nurse leader job exists because of high demand for improved patient care. The American Hospital Association, the Institute of Medicine, and the American Association of Colleges of Nursing all noted the need to professionally train nurse leaders to provide better care.

Reviewed By:

Portrait of Brandy Gleason MSN, MHA, BC-NC

Brandy Gleason MSN, MHA, BC-NC

As an assistant professor of nursing and entrepreneur with nearly twenty years of varied nursing experience, Brandy Gleason offers a unique perspective. She currently teaches within a prelicensure nursing program and coaches master’s students through their culminating projects. Brandy brings additional expertise as a bedside nurse and a nurse leader, having held past roles at the supervisory, managerial, and senior leadership levels. Her passion and area of research centers around coaching nurses and nursing students to build resilience and avoid burnout. Brandy is also an avid change agent when it comes to creating environments and systems that contribute to the wellbeing of students and healthcare professionals.

Featured Image: jacoblund / iStock / Getty Images Plus

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