Skip to main content

Nurse Leader vs. Nurse Manager - What Is the Difference?


The nursing profession is built upon leadership and a commitment to achievement that extends beyond frontline medicine. Nurses must wear many hats that include a gentle bedside manner, administrative awareness, and policy insight — interacting with patients, families, insurance companies, and other business professionals.


Their advanced education, strong interpersonal skills, and extensive medical training not only allow them to provide exceptional care, but also make them a perfect fit to serve in leadership capacities.


However, it’s important that nurses and aspiring nursing professionals know the difference between two of the profession’s key roles: nurse manager and nurse leader.


Nursing is a call to leadership, according to Eileen Williamson, MSN, RN, writing for She noted that nurse manager and nurse leader are two nursing roles that emphasize and utilize leadership, but in different capacities.


Discover more about the responsibilities of management nurses and nurse leaders, along with the similarities and differences between the two roles.

Nurse managers perform hands-on duties; nurse leaders assume a strategic, high-level operational view

Nurse managers and nurse leaders are both deeply involved with a healthcare facility’s high-level operations.


On the administrative side, management nurses are involved with healthcare units and divisions to ensure they function smoothly, according to Williamson. Their daily involvement benefits healthcare facilities in the short term, such as supervising staff schedules and reviewing employee performance.


Nurse leaders are typically less task-orientated than nurse managers. Their responsibilities focus on a long-term vision, such as ensuring regulatory compliance, overseeing quality measures, and developing policies.

What does it mean to work as a nurse manager?

According to Williamson, nurses in management oversee nursing units, divisions, and service lines. Ultimately, a nurse manager is always accountable, whether he or she is working or not.


The American Organization of Nurse Executives (AONE) explains that nurse managers provide a vital link between a healthcare facility’s administrative vision and its patient care. They do this by closely communicating with other nurses, physicians, and various healthcare professionals, as observed by Johnson & Johnson’s Campaign for Nursing.


If you seek employment as a management nurse, you may spend much of your time recruiting new nursing talent, retaining staff, and overseeing the staff’s performance. Williamson notes that nurse managers also perform tasks related to patient care planning, goal-setting, budgeting, and improving healthcare operational quality.

What does it mean to work as a nurse leader?

Nurse leaders aim to advance the mission and vision of their healthcare organizations. According to Williamson, they may develop policies for their facilities, ensuring that they comply with existing regulations — and can implement new mandates, advancing organizational change.


As a nurse leader, you may assume the greatest responsibility for quality of patient care, employee and patient satisfaction levels, and organizational outcomes. In this role, you may even have some responsibility for your healthcare facility’s finances.


In times of crisis, nurse leaders have important responsibilities, as outlined by Cole Edmonson, Dio Sumagaysay, Marie Cueman, and Stacey Chappell in their paper, “Crisis Management: The Nurse Leader’s Role,” published in the June 2016 issue of Nurse Leader. These crises may come from natural disasters, terrorism, or large-scale health epidemics.


During these times, nurse leaders must maintain a controlled exterior to instill calm in others, according to the paper. They help develop plans of action and communicate these plans openly to reduce panic and make sure other employees understand their roles. Communication with media can also ensure that the public is informed about the crisis and resulting actions are taken.

What’s the difference between a nurse leader and a nurse managers?

Nurse leaders work to impart knowledge, experience, and other forward-thinking nursing values to the organization as a whole. Healthcare managers and staff across an entire facility or organization can look to their nurse leaders for guidance, because their roles impact everyone.


Where nurse leaders are tasked with looking beyond the nursing team, nurse managers often have a close working relationship with the nurses reporting to them.


Nurse technicians and certified nursing assistants look to nurse managers for direction and support in their positions. Nurses in management are valuable resources for advice and information, including staff scheduling, performance reviews, appraisals, and professional development assistance.


The difference between a nurse leader and a nurse manager comes down to involvement. If you want to help your facility advance and operate on an institutional level, nurse leadership may be for you. However, if you’d prefer to work directly with nurses who report to you, nurse management could be ideal.

Nurse managers have more diverse workplace options

The Campaign for Nursing notes that nurse leaders and nurse managers both commonly work at hospitals and ambulatory care centers. However, many nurse managers also work at long-term care centers.


Patients may enter a long-term care facility with a terminal condition, serious illness or injury, disability, or other health concern.


According to the National Care Planning Council (NCPC), an estimated 60% of all people will require long-term care at some point in their lives. As long-term care is such a common need, nurse managers may have added job opportunities that are not available to nurse leaders, who can only work at hospitals and ambulatory care centers.

Educational paths for nurse leaders and nurse managers can vary

According to the Campaign for Nursing, nurse leaders must have a Master of Science in Nursing degree. As such, nurse managers have greater flexibility in their educational paths.


However, the Campaign for Nursing stated that nurse managers must also pass the American Organization of Nurse Executives’ nurse management certification exam, which is not a certification requirement for nurse leaders.

Nurses may take on one or both roles

Nurse managers and nurse leaders share similar characteristics. To pursue either role, you must be respected in the field, with a genuine passion for nursing. You must also excel at decision-making and delegation.


Nurses with the proper qualifications and experience may find themselves taking on both roles in their organization: nurse manager and nurse leader.


An MSN degree can prepare nurse leaders and nurse managers for their leadership responsibilities. If you’re looking to advance into either of these positions, you may consider an online nurse practitioner program as an opportunity to advance your skills with flexibility to keep working.


Check out the Maryville University MSN degree online, and learn how the curriculum can help you develop the skills to succeed in a nursing leadership role.


Student support specialist helping online student in café

Learn more about our programs.

Student sitting outdoors on her computer

Take your next step.

Stay in the know

Program Type
Program Name
Total tuition:
Program Type
Program Name