A clinical nurse leader meets with nurses.

What Is a Clinical Nurse Leader?


The health care industry is constantly evolving. Talented leaders are needed to help navigate the growing complexities involved in care delivery. Clinical nurse leaders (CNLs), in particular, have emerged as crucial constituents to the enhancement of patient care. What is a clinical nurse leader? A role initially developed by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), a clinical nurse leader is a master’s-educated nurse who oversees and directs patient care. Unlike some other nursing leadership roles that specialize in a particular area, clinical nurse leaders are generalists. Understanding the issues that impact care delivery at both the micro and macro levels, they collaborate with other leaders across the care continuum to integrate health care delivery. Earning an advanced degree, such as an online Master of Science in Nursing, is an essential step on the path to becoming a clinical nurse leader. These programs help students develop the crucial leadership and problem-solving skills to excel in the role.

What Does a Clinical Nurse Leader Do?

Clinical nurse leaders focus on enhancing care delivery and patient outcomes. They work directly with other clinicians, providing leadership at the point of care, rather than filling a purely administrative role. Though the specific responsibilities of a clinical nurse leader may vary across different health care settings, the bulk of their duties generally involve directing patient care and managing staff. In this role, CNLs perform several key duties.

  • Coordinate patient care.
  • Apply evidence-based practice to ensure patients have access to the latest medical technology.
  • Evaluate patient outcomes and directing clinicians to alter care plans when necessary.
  • Work directly with patients in complex care situations.

In addition to providing clinical support to the nursing team, clinical nurse leaders perform crucial managerial duties such as scheduling, reviewing clinical work, and motivating staff to achieve health care goals. A CNL functions as part of an interdisciplinary team at a health care facility, working collaboratively with other clinicians and health care professionals across all touchpoints of care delivery to enhance the patient experience. They are responsible for planning, communicating, and administering care alongside other nurse leaders such as nurse educators and nurse case managers. CNLs also collaborate with physicians, pharmacists, nurse practitioners, and others. A clinical nurse leader helps ensure that patient care is integrated across teams and the entire health system. In addition, clinical nurse leaders perform certain administrative functions, including analyzing metrics such as patients’ length of stay, patient flow, readmission rates, and staff turnover.

Steps to Become a Clinical Nurse Leader

Becoming a clinical nurse leader requires a combination of advanced education—particularly a master’s degree—work experience, and certification.


Aspiring clinical nurse leaders should begin by earning a bachelor’s degree in nursing, which provides a foundation in subjects such as anatomy, physiology, and microbiology, among others. The next step to a CNL certification is a master’s degree. The curriculum provided by an advanced degree program such as a Master of Science in Nursing furthers clinical knowledge and helps students develop important leadership, analytical, and problem-solving skills. A graduate education ensures that clinical nurse leaders possess a high level of clinical knowledge and competence in patient care.


In addition to advanced education, clinical nurse leaders need to have nursing experience, generally several years practicing with patients. Nursing professionals pursuing a clinical nurse leader role also must hold a registered nurse (RN) license to be eligible for CNL certification. Leadership experience in a nursing role is especially beneficial, as staff management is among the chief responsibilities of CNLs. Work experience in a hospital or health system ensures that nurse leaders have the comprehensive clinical knowledge and an understanding of how the micro and macro systems in a health care organization operate and interact with each other.


A CNL certification validates a nurse’s knowledge, skills, and abilities as a clinical nurse leader and allows employers to identify individuals who are suitable for the role. To be eligible for certification, candidates must meet a severalrequirements.

  • Possess a degree from an accredited CNL master’s or post-master’s program, or be in the final term of such a program.
  • Hold a current and active RN license.
  • Pass the CNL examination.

Clinical nurse leaders must also demonstrate a commitment to the official CNL Standards of Conduct, which encapsulate certain core ethical values and behaviors, including altruism, accountability, human dignity, integrity, and social justice. These standards of conduct are fundamental to what a clinical nurse leader is and the job they do. The certification exam is administered by the Commission on Nurse Certification, an arm of the AACN. The computer-based exam includes 140 questions, of which 130 are scored. Aspiring CNLs must achieve a score of 350 or greater (out of a possible 500) to pass.

CNL certification offers many benefits, for both clinical nurse leaders and potential employers. For nurses, certification opens new employment and career advancement opportunities, increases autonomy in the workplace, escalates compensation, and improves confidence in their abilities. For employers, CNL-certified nurses offer the following benefits:

  • A commitment to patient safety and quality care delivery.
  • Reduced risk of errors, accidents, and legal liability.
  • Reduced employee turnover and improved job satisfaction.

Clinical nurse leaders must renew their certification every five years. During the five-year certification period, clinical nurse leaders must complete some prerequisites for recertification, including maintaining an RN license and working at least 2,000 hours in this role.

Clinical Nurse Leader Salary

Because of the level of expertise and professional investment needed to become a clinical nurse leader, individuals in this role are generally well compensated. According to June 2021 data from the compensation website PayScale, the salary for a clinical nurse leader can range between $65,000 and $112,000, with a median annual salary of approximately $83,200. By comparison, the median salary for registered nurses was $75,330 in 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Various factors can influence the salary of a clinical nurse leader, including education level, experience, and job location. For example, clinical nurse leaders who work in metropolitan areas generally earn higher salaries as these locations have greater concentrations of health care facilities, and, therefore, more competition for CNL roles. According to PayScale, CNLs in New York City, Fort Worth (Texas), and Chicago earn more than the national average.

Leading the Way in Nursing

Clinical nurse leaders provide vital leadership and clinical expertise to health care organizations, ensuring that patients benefit from a superior care experience. Those looking to advance in the nursing profession may want to explore a career as a CNL. Earning a master’s degree, such as Norwich University’s online Master of Science in Nursing, is an excellent choice. The program’s concentrations in Healthcare Systems Leadership, Nursing Education, and Nurse Practitioner can help students develop the knowledge and skills to excel. Students can choose from three different tracks in the Nurse Practitioner concentration: Family Nurse Practitioner, Adult-Gerontology Acute Care Nurse Practitioner, and Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner. Learn more about how Norwich University’s online MSN program can help you pursue leadership roles in the field of nursing.

Recommended Readings

What Is Nursing Education: Role and Career Opportunities
Nurse Leadership Qualities for Your Future Career
How to Become a Nurse Manager


CNL Certification, American Association of Colleges of Nursing
What Is a CNL?, International Clinical Nurse Leader Association
Clinical Nurse Leader (CNL), U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs
Average Clinical Nurse Leader Salary, PayScale
What is a Clinical Nurse Leader?, Indeed
Registered Nurses, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
CNL Certification Guide, Commission on Nurse Certification
Standards of Conduct, Commission on Nurse Certification

Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
Clinical Nurse Leader Salary, ZipRecruiter


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