Nurse Leader vs. Nurse Manager (What’s The Difference?)

Leadership is the very heart of nursing. If you’re considering taking your leadership skills to a new level in your career, you may want to work as a nurse manager or a nurse leader. We’re taking a look at nurse leader vs. nurse manager jobs to understand the similarities and differences between these two roles.

I remember that as a nursing student, we discussed the difference between being a nurse leader and a nurse manager. It’s unfortunate that these two titles are so similar because they don’t refer to the same role yet when people hear the terms, they may think these two jobs are one and the same.  

As with many professions (and nursing is no exception), there are many levels of management.

So although nurse managers and nurse leaders sound like they may be the same (or very similar) positions, there are differences around job responsibilities, seniority levels, pay, and more.  

However, both of these jobs have their place in ensuring both nursing and patient-care excellence in various healthcare settings and facilities. How are they alike and how do they differ? Let’s dive in and find out.

Roles And Duties Of Nurse Manager vs. Nurse Leader

Although nursing is a call to leadership in general, some nurses choose to take their skills and utilize leadership in more formally recognized capacities. Both nurse leaders and nurse managers are intimately involved in ensuring high-quality patient care, although they approach it from two different angles.

For example, nurse managers are hands-on leaders, overseeing teams of nurses in their department up close and in person while ensuring smooth day-to-day operations. This position offers great opportunities for growth and advancement while developing strong leadership skills and still maintaining direct contact with patients. Nurses who still want to interact with patients may prefer this position.

By contrast, nurse leaders take on an administrative role, leading from a more hands-off, high-level position to set policies, ensure regulatory compliance, and develop plans for a healthcare facility. Nurse leaders work with the administration team rather than spending their days with nurses or patients.

Let’s take a closer look at their job duties to further differentiate between these positions.

Duties Of A Nurse Manager

Nurse managers manage teams of nurses and often also provide patient care (either directly or indirectly). Here are some tasks you may notice a nurse manager performing:

  • Creating the nursing shift schedule
  • Maintaining patient records and ensuring they’re kept up to date
  • Hiring, training, and evaluating nurses
  • Managing the budget for their department
  • Ensuring their department follows health care regulations and is in compliance with laws
  • Identifying and setting goals in their department
  • Providing hands-on care to patients

Duties Of A Nurse Leader

In contrast to a nurse manager, nurse leaders don’t have direct contact with patients, nor do they oversee a single department. Instead, they have a purely administrative role in an office setting that oversees an entire healthcare facility or hospital.

Here are some tasks you may notice a nurse leader performing:

  • Evaluating current procedures and identifying ways to improve them
  • Setting patient care standards and best practices for the healthcare facility
  • Developing new policies and overseeing them
  • Ensuring regulatory compliance for the facility
  • Meeting with board members or stakeholders to update them and develop new policies or strategies
  • Ensuring the staff follow the organization’s mission and vision.

Nurse Manager vs. Nurse Leader Education

There is some overlap in education and experience for nurse managers and nurse leaders. First, both roles require a Bachelor’s Degree in Nursing (BSN) and passing the NCLEX-RN board exam.

Next, both nursing leaders and nursing managers need several years of on-the-job experience as nurses (often 5+ years) and then obtain a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) and/or a Master’s in Business Administration or Healthcare Administration (MBA or MHA). 

Additionally, the American Organization of Nurse Executives offers two paths for certifications. 

The Certified Nurse Manager and Leader (CNML), is offered in collaboration with the American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN) for aspiring nurse managers to show that they have the skills necessary to be nurse managers. 

Moreover, the Certified in Executive Nursing Practice (CENP) certification is required for aspiring nurse leaders to show they have the skills and expertise to be effective in an executive-level position

Income And Job Outlook

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that both positions have a positive outlook with higher demand through 2030. 

Salaries can vary significantly between the two roles due to their duties and authority level. In addition, factors such as experience, location, department, education, and more can impact salaries.

Nurse managers can expect to make between $95K and $145K, with a national average of around $110K. Because nurse leaders are administrative, these salaries tend to be higher, landing between $110K and $170K with an average of around $150K, according to the American Organization for Nursing Leadership (AONL).

How To Become A Nurse Leader vs. Nurse Manager

As you consider your goals within your nursing career, you may discover that you want to work toward obtaining advanced or leadership positions like a nurse manager or nurse leader.

In order to pursue these roles, you’ll need to develop certain skills, including leadership, management, communication, decision-making, problem-solving, and delegation.

Once you decide you want to work toward one of these roles, your first step will be to invest in and further your education, which you should be able to do while you’re working.

Begin searching for leadership positions because you may be able to move into some of them as you complete your education and certification.

Nurse Leader vs Nurse Manager: Final Thoughts

The healthcare system needs both nurse managers and nurse leaders to ensure smooth healthcare operations and high-quality patient care. These roles perform differing job duties as they support patients and the healthcare facility from different angles. And they offer personal and professional growth opportunities for nurses. Nurse leader vs. nurse manager: which leadership role interests you?

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8 thoughts on “Nurse Leader vs. Nurse Manager (What’s The Difference?)”

  1. In my Nursing career of 40 years in many DON, facility owner, manager and team leader roles, I presumed that people who liked you did their jobs. 50% of the employees don’t like you because you are the Boss, the way you comb your hair, or because you are a male, they won’t like you no matter what you do. 30% of the employees like you and they are the ones doing their jobs. 20% of the employees haven’t made up their minds yet. Focus on them to increase communication, effective leadership and productivity.

    1. interesting perspective.

      You think the likability of the boss has a direct impact on the performance of employee?

      To be completely honest, my former boss was far from likable, but I was still a great employee. If someone needs to “like” their boss to do their job then they are not motivated by their own work ethic and personal standards. Granted, liking my boss and being liked back do make the job better overall.

  2. Amen. One of the best leaders I know is a staff nurse in my dept. She was a manger before and says “never again”. She has only been here since July but had inspired and spearheaded so many improvements and inspired those around her to perform better. She could not stand management, as it constrained her. That is so unfortunate. She had been a nurse 30 years, I’ve only been one for 5. However, that is my kind of role model, a true leader.

      1. I agree that leaders are often not managers and managers are often not leaders. There is a great deal of innovation and positive momentum from our informal leaders, there is frustration in management and generated by management, there are also exceptional nurses who are both good leaders and good managers.

        I have been an RN for nearly 27 years and have had many roles as a staff RN, an informal leader and in formal leadership roles. Despite some of the challenges of informal leadership / leading from the bedside–that role was in many ways easier than taking on management/administrative roles. I loved being the change agent, the respected peer who got things done.

        However, I recently moved into a new position as an ED director and now I am management. It was not an easy decision for I knew full well the challenges and personal cost. I also realized that if I truly wanted larger scale change, if I wanted leadership for our department, our organization and nursing instead of mere management I had to be willing to step forward and try to bring this change. As an informal leader is it ethical to stand back and complain about “management” without being willing to rally change at that level? And yes, I now must worry about budgets, manage QI metrics, attend to the crisis du jour, appease senior management and employees… but these are all just pieces of a complex puzzle. I am there because I want to improve patient care and the work environment. I want to empower nursing and interdisciplinary teams to innovate and excel.

        Will I continue to develop as a leader and a mentor? Will I become another tired manager mired in the details? Will all my colleagues recognize me as a leader or a manager…will I? I can only offer my best knowledge, efforts, compassion and willingness to grow. I can aspire to be one of the exceptional nurses who makes a difference. In the end it will be my colleagues and my patients who will know if I have succeeded.

        I would encourage you to make the biggest difference you can!

        1. I am so happy to hear comments likes this.

          You are exactly the type of nurse leader that needs to be in management.
          You are what nursing needs to progress.

          Thank you for being passionate about nursing and for choosing to be a leader.

          I think you will achieve what you aspire to be, but we all know it’s going to be a daily challenge to walk the tight rope.

          1. Thanks for the vote of confidence!
            And yes, today was a challange all 07:30am-11:10pm of it.
            Yet, it is all good.

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