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How to Become a Clinical Nurse Leader?


When new nurses enter the healthcare system and begin treating patients, they need leaders who are role models and resources. Nurses can benefit greatly from expert guidance, which is where clinical nurse leaders (CNLs) come into play.


The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), in collaboration with various healthcare leaders, developed the CNL designation. Clinical nurse leaders were created to improve the quality of patient care while ensuring nurses have the competencies to thrive in the modern healthcare system.


In addition to serving as mentors to less-experienced nurses, clinical nurse leaders play a pivotal role in healthcare facilities by using research and actionable data to improve their organizations. CNLs use their advanced medical knowledge and clinical experience to improve patient outcomes and make hospital processes more efficient.


Clinical nurse leaders are prepared at the master’s degree level to benefit their fellow healthcare workers, their facilities, and the countless patients requiring medical care.

What Is the Role of a Clinical Nurse Leader?

The role of a clinical nurse leader is multifaceted and requires involvement in several different aspects of the healthcare system. First, CNLs create and coordinate long-term patient care plans. They’re mentors and managers for registered nurses, guiding them to provide the best patient care possible.


Additionally, CNLs conduct research and data analysis. Hospitals and other medical facilities benefit from having CNLs on staff who discover ways to improve processes, reduce risk and inefficiencies, and improve the patient experience. For example, Nursing Management reported on a CNL-led quality improvement project that decreased patient fall rates by 35% and cut costs by up to $112,000 annually.


In addition to working in hospitals, clinical nurse leaders work in medical colleges, private clinics, and research facilities. Their educational background and experience make them valuable in many healthcare scenarios.

What Are the Job Responsibilities of a Clinical Nurse Leader?

Typical clinical nurse leader responsibilities include the following:

  • Overseeing lateral care for distinct groups of patients
  • Collaborating with other healthcare professionals
  • Collecting and evaluating patient data and assessing risk
  • Using evidence-based practice to improve patient care
  • Facilitating high-quality outcomes with nursing staff and serving as mentors
  • Developing quality improvement strategies and ways to reduce inefficiencies
  • Providing direct patient care (in rare and complex cases)

Steps to Become a Clinical Nurse Leader

The journey to becoming a clinical nurse leader can include the following steps:


Nurses may also choose to pursue a clinical nurse leader (CNL) certification from the Commission on Nurse Certification (CNC). This certifies that the nurse possesses the knowledge and skills to begin working as a CNL.

Pursue Your Passion by Becoming a Leader in Healthcare

Clinical nurse leaders play an integral role in hospitals and healthcare facilities. They improve patient outcomes by training less experienced nurses and working directly with complex healthcare scenarios. They benefit their organizations by discovering ways to improve processes and reduce costs, saving time and money.


CNLs made a median base salary of approximately $84,000 in September 2022, according to PayScale; top-earning CNLs made upward of $111,000. For comparison, registered nurses made a median base salary of $77,600 in 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.


Aspiring nurse leaders interested in advancing their careers and taking on leadership roles should consider Maryville University’s MSN nursing online programs. Courses such as advanced pathophysiology, leadership and quality, and professional role development lay the groundwork for a thriving career.


Begin your journey to becoming an effective nurse leader with Maryville.


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