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The Clinical Nurse Leader Role

 |  6 Min Read

When entering the medical field as a nurse, there are a number of specialties to choose from. Nursing alone encompasses over 100 specialties, from dermatology to forensics, and finding your niche can be daunting. The decision to shift from an RN role into that of a Clinical Nurse Leader® (CNL) may even leave some with trepidation. While it’s natural to feel hesitant about making such a transition, given the added responsibilities of CNLs, it’s important to remember the rewards of working in such a results-oriented role are many. Plus, unlike some nursing leadership roles that are more focused on managerial or administrative tasks, CNLs are still afforded the opportunity to work with patients regularly.

There are some exciting new advancements appearing in the field of nursing, a discipline already well known for its reliance on intelligence, compassion and skill. Current licensed practical nurses and registered nurses, as well as nursing assistants or students who simply dream of entering the healthcare industry, should consider working up to their master’s degree in nursing and pursuing the rewarding nurse leader role of the CNL.

Understand Clinical Leadership

One of the most important aspects of a CNL’s position involves leadership. Learning to fill a nurse leader role is an integral part of the nursing education required to be eligible for CNL certification. Different from a staff nurse, a CNL has a hand in everything and is responsible for driving real results. Those who earn their MSN can achieve the satisfaction they seek with a CNL position where, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, they will assume “accountability for patient-care outcomes through the assimilation and application of evidence-based information to design, implement and evaluate patient-care processes and models of care delivery.”.

The clinical leadership offered by nurses with this degree is vital in the medical community, given that an MSN with a CNL track offers seasoned RNs the needed skillset to create, implement and gauge a patient’s care, along with the management and collaboration skills for working with other healthcare professionals.

Take on the Role of a Nurse Leader

The scope of duties involves drafting healthcare plans for patients, leading processes and teams, utilizing data to design and implement evidence-based practice, and anticipating problems with colleagues or patient care. Although the leadership responsibilities of a CNL are many, the AACN maintains the CNL role is unique in that it is “not one of administration or management.” Rather, CNLs work toward bettering the care of the entire population of patients in their unit, making recommendations as they see fit based off of data they’ve collected and analyzed.

A CNL strengthens the connection between patients and nurses and between nurses and doctors. The individual speaks to patients about symptoms, moods, pain levels and even emotional feelings, then carries that information to the doctors and other nurses on staff. Through collaboration, every team member comes up with a care plan, although the CNL ultimately chooses a course of action and is responsible for following through with it. Thus, it’s vital a CNL has the communication skills and leadership qualities necessary to facilitate dialogue and decision-making.

Guide Your Colleagues

Because the CNL is the bridge between numerous individuals and areas, it is important to build strong relationships with colleagues. From the newest certified nursing assistant, to the most tenured doctor, the CNL must maintain clear communication with all stakeholders. A large part of the position involves listening to everyone’s concerns and ideas because these will play a role in determining a course of action in many instances. The CNL will work closely with the entire medical team, ensuring each patient receives the highest level of care. CNLs keep up on the latest technology and treatments and assess the risks and advantages with the patient’s nurses and doctors. A CNL will take in and analyze feedback from the team and initiate a quality care plan aimed for success. They also assume accountability for the evaluation and improvement of point-of-care outcomes.

Provide Better Care for Patients

By attending an online nursing school and acquiring a master’s, the potential CNL will quickly learn the importance of creating patient care plans. A huge part of the nurse leader role involves managing patient care and coming up with the best plan of action, whether the patient suffers from cancer, heart disease or a broken limb.

Nurses studying to become a CNL will learn how to research new surgery techniques, new equipment and the finer details of maintaining a patient’s comfort. Students learn how to collaborate not just with doctors and nurses, but also with pharmacists, the patient’s family, physical therapists and social workers.

Motivate and Mentor Staff

In addition to keeping up on healthcare informatics, new innovations in surgeries and care techniques, and communicating between staff members, CNLs are essentially mentors and motivators for their team. Constant communication is of the utmost importance, as is the ability to listen to problems and ideas with an open mind. As professionals in a nurse leader role, they are also responsible for inspiring the next group of CNLs.

Discover your inner leader and pursue an online Master of Science in Nursing at Queens University of Charlotte to become an even better advocate for your patients and a driver of improvement within your care unit.

Interested in learning more about how CNLs drive improvement for their patients? Read about the impact of the Clinical Nurse Leader in the maternity unit.

The Future of Healthcare

Health care is constantly changing. Given new legislation and the introduction of the Affordable Care Act, along with the aging baby boomer population, more people have access to health insurance and more will be seeking care as they age, so the demand for nurses and nurse leaders will continue to grow.

Coupled with the increase in nursing staff, there will be a significant need for those who have been trained as leaders in the nursing field and understand how to take charge of patient health and wellness. As this develops, more people will be looking into MSN degrees and Clinical Nurse Leader programs. This graduate program offers students an edge in areas like professionalism and ethics, research methods and management of clinical outcomes – all of which help nurses become well-rounded leaders who foster collaboration among the various stakeholders contributing to patients’ care.

For those looking to further their nursing career and remain an integral part of a growing field, an MSN is paramount. For those nurses who wish to maintain patient interaction in their workday while stepping up to a role that drives improvement across healthcare disciplines, a master’s in nursing with a Clinical Nurse Leader track is an excellent option. Queens University of Charlotte is one of few nursing schools in North Carolina to offer the CNL track in an online MSN degree. Classes are offered online to accommodate every schedule, and our dedicated, accomplished faculty are ready to assist you through in your process of reaching your full potential as a leader in the nursing profession. Request more information and enroll today.


  1. “The Registered Nurse Population: Findings from the 2008 National Sample Survey of Registered Nurses,” U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration, September 2010.

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