a nurse and her manager looking at a laptop together

Nurse Manager vs. Nurse Leader

In the eyes of many people, the terms manager and leader may imply similar job positions, but there are fundamental differences between the two. The distinction is particularly notable in the nursing profession, in which the roles of nurse managers and nurse leaders require different professional skill sets. According to AORN Journal, nurse managers are typically responsible for establishing daily routines for the nurses on their teams. Nurse leaders supervise nurses and nurse managers, and they are more focused on high-level goals, such as improving team productivity, facilitating communication among managers, and encouraging professional development amongst all employees. Those seeking to advance their nursing career should learn the differences between the two roles, as doing so can allow them to better plan their career trajectory.

Comparing Nurse Managers and Nurse Leaders

To understand the differences between a nurse manager and nurse leader, it is important to understand their respective job responsibilities. Nurse managers typically report to a nurse leader and carry out policies and initiatives that have been established by the organization. Managers, such as clinical nurse managers or nurse administrators, are directly involved in overseeing day-to-day activities, including supervision of patient care, quality control for healthcare services, and creating employee schedules. As nurses have many commitments to balance, nurse managers must have impeccable attention to detail to create schedules that best satisfy each employee’s needs, and the needs of the medical facility and patients. By keeping the needs of the stakeholders at the forefront of their mind, nurse managers can positively influence team behavior to meet organizational goals, facilitate effective communication, build team morale, and help nurses along on their personal career journeys.

Nurse leaders, on the other hand, delegate day-to-day tasks and responsibilities to nurse managers and take a big-picture view of the organizations for which they work. Working in roles such as head nurse, patient care director, or chief nursing officer, nurse leaders help create the annual strategic plans for their divisions to achieve financial and operational goals. In these top management roles, nurse leaders also have a hand in creating and applying the ethical, professional, and medical standards that embrace the organization’s mission and vision. Additionally, by using their previous experience as nurses or managers, nurse leaders can help drive organization-wide initiatives to improve the quality and cost-effectiveness of patient care.

Why Managers Need Leaders

Good nurse leaders take responsibility for providing the managers they oversee with inspiration and motivation, and when possible, they also encourage their staff to pursue professional development opportunities. Their leadership helps nurse managers identify how they can keep their teams focused and engaged as they deliver nursing services. Nurse leaders can achieve these objectives by:

  • Inspiring teamwork

    • Nurse leaders can inspire teamwork amongst nurse managers by setting achievable expectations, clearly articulating their vision, and leading by example. Doing so can improve productivity, as the management team will be aligned in their goals, making it easier for them to work together more efficiently.

  • Interfacing with executive leadership

    • Nurse leaders observe the nursing departments to develop a comprehensive understanding of what their staff needs to provide the best quality of care. As advocates for nurse managers and their teams, leaders can then leverage their communication skills to explain to executive teams what and how operational strategies can be improved.

  • Advocating for the continuing success of nurse managers

    • Nurse leaders encourage nurse managers and non-management staff to partake in professional development opportunities, such as taking courses, earning certifications, and completing training programs that are suited to their specific strengths and professional interests.  By advocating for nurse managers and their staff to continually develop their knowledge and skills, nurse leaders help create a stronger team that can focus on improving health care delivery and optimizing the efficiency of their departments’ daily operations.

Health care will continue to change over the next decade. As longevity increases and the population ages, the need for nurses, nurse managers, and nurse leaders will increase as well. Nurses who are interested in the opportunities available as nurse leaders should consider taking the necessary steps that can help them transition to a leadership role in their healthcare organizations.

Learn More

Norwich University has been a leader in innovative education since 1819. Through its online programs, Norwich delivers relevant and applicable curricula that allow its students to make a positive impact on their workplaces and communities.

Norwich University’s online Master of Science in Nursing program helps students hone their knowledge and skills to assume leadership positions in health care systems, nursing informatics, or nursing education. The program aims to develop students who could take a role in shaping health policy, educating other nurses and health care professionals, and providing advanced care to their patients. Norwich’s online nursing program coursework has been developed based on guidelines by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, and the program is accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education.

Recommended Reading

Six Nurse Leadership Opportunities for Master of Science in Nursing Graduates

Leading Nurse Teams Through Change

5 Leadership Styles for Clinical Nurse Leaders


Nine Principles of Successful Nursing Leadership, American Nurse Today

The Role of Nurse Leaders in Improving Health, Nursing Times

3 Ways to Help Nurse Managers Transition into Leadership, Becker’s Hospital Review

Growing Nurse Leaders: Their Perspectives on Nursing Leadership and Today’s Practice Environment, National Institutes of Health

Next U.S. Restructuring Epidemic: Sick Health-Care Companies, Bloomberg

Leadership and Management Roles: Challenges and Success Strategies, AORN Journal

Medical and Health Services Managers, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook

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