A Look at Nursing Leadership Roles

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Nursing leadership is crucial for elevating the standard of patient care and for inspiring others to achieve their potential. Some leadership roles in nursing include director of nursing, chief nursing officer and clinical nurse manager.

nurses at table looking at laptop

The healthcare field needs strong, confident nurse leaders to serve as role models for others, work toward improvements in care and motivate their colleagues to adhere to high professional standards. If you’re attracted to the idea of a healthcare career, you might consider pursuing nursing leadership roles. Here, you can get the answers to some commonly asked questions, such as, “Why is leadership important in nursing?” and “What are some examples of leadership roles in nursing?”

Nurses come from a variety of backgrounds. If you have a non-nursing college education and would like to make a career transition, then CSP Global is here to help. Our Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing (ABSN) program can allow you to earn a BSN in 16 months by building on your previous education.

Why Is Leadership Important in Nursing?

First, let’s take a step back and examine what it means to be a nurse leader. Although there are established leadership roles in nursing (e.g., chief nursing officer or director of nursing), every nurse has the potential to be a leader. Leadership is characterized by specific actions, and these actions are not necessarily limited to professionals with certain job titles. A true nurse leader, regardless of their official role, is someone who:

  • Inspires and motivates others to achieve new heights.
  • Consistently and rigorously adheres to the highest standards of professional ethics and encourages others to do the same.
  • Serves as a source of guidance and mentorship for other nurses.
  • Takes the initiative to develop and implement improvements, such as to the delivery of care.

Leadership traits in nurses are crucial because nurse leaders contribute to a positive and supportive work culture. Nurse leaders can:

  • Use evidence to inform clinical decision-making and the change process
  • Drive positive change in the healthcare facility
  • Contribute to improvements in facility policies and/or public policy
nurse standing with arms crossed

Here, you can learn about four nursing role models who made a positive difference in the field.

Essential Characteristics and Skills for Nursing Leadership Roles

Nurse leaders possess many essential characteristics and skills. One of the most important is the ability to remain adaptable to cope with the ever-changing landscape of healthcare. Technologies improve, policies are updated, and the needs of patients evolve. For professionals in nursing leadership roles, remaining agile enough to adapt to changes is essential.

Other important characteristics and skills of nurse leaders include the following:

  • Verbal and written communication skills, including listening skills
  • A collaborative mindset
  • Unwavering commitment to clinical excellence
  • An excitement for lifelong learning and continued professional development
  • Compassion, advocacy, and empathy
  • Professionalism and adherence to professional ethics.
  • Open-mindedness (e.g., a willingness to embrace new technologies)
  • Interpersonal skills (e.g., the ability to cultivate authentic relationships with colleagues)

Nurse leaders must be role models who lead by example and encourage others.

nursing student wearing face mask

Top Leadership Roles in Nursing

Every nurse has the potential to become a nurse leader, regardless of their official title. However, there are some established nursing leadership roles, such as director of nursing, chief nursing officer and clinical nurse manager. Generally, nurses with many years of clinical experience fill these established leadership roles.

In addition, it’s often necessary for those who aspire to advance to these positions to earn a graduate degree, such as a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) or Doctor of Philosophy (PhD). Generally, new nurses gain some work experience before deciding whether to head back to school to pursue an advanced degree.

As you learn about various leadership roles below, remember that specific job titles can vary from one facility to another. A “healthcare administrator” at one hospital might be called a “health services manager” at another facility, for example.

Closeup of nurse looking at an IV drip

You’ll find leadership opportunities across nursing specialties. Explore 10 nursing specializations here.

Director of Nursing

A director of nursing is a healthcare administrator who is the top nurse in a facility. They are responsible for overseeing the facility’s entire nursing staff, as well as all nursing services provided to patients. The director serves as a liaison among the nursing staff, other medical teams (e.g., surgeons) and management professionals.

This professional carries a great deal of responsibility. The exact job duties depend on the facility, but, in general, a director of nursing will perform the following tasks:

  • Supervise nurses – The director establishes short-term and long-term objectives for the nursing department and supervises nurses to ensure that those objectives are met. The director also reviews the performance of individual nurses and may connect nurses to ongoing training opportunities.
  • Improve the standard of care – All healthcare facilities must establish a standard of care that complies with all applicable federal and state regulations. The director is responsible for developing new policies and modifying existing policies to ensure that the facility is in compliance with these regulations and that patients receive the best possible care.
  • Act as an administrator – The director of nursing has many administrative responsibilities, including establishing and tracking departmental budgets, overseeing human resources functions that pertain to the nursing staff and ensuring the smooth operation of inventory management.
  • Nurture relationships – A director of nursing must have strong interpersonal skills, as they must de-escalate situations, resolve conflicts, facilitate clear and open communication and act as a liaison.

The director’s job is not an entry-level one. Directors of nursing are expected to be RNs who are in good standing and have years of clinical experience and, typically, a graduate degree in nursing. Some directors hold additional certifications in healthcare administration.

Chief Nursing Officer

A chief nursing officer (CNO) is an executive-level healthcare administrator who is responsible for overseeing a facility’s entire nursing program. They are responsible for being the “voice” of the nursing department when facility-wide strategic and operational decisions are made. CNOs are responsible for hiring, training and mentoring nurse managers (lower-level healthcare administrators); establishing performance standards; overseeing budgets, and developing professional training programs.

nurses standing at desk counter

There is quite a bit of overlap between the jobs of the chief nursing officer and the director of nursing. However, there are some key differences. The CNO is the highest-ranking nursing staff leader. The director of nursing is supervised by the CNO. In addition, each of the two roles has a slightly different focus. Whereas the CNO focuses on higher-level oversight involving matters such as compliance and policy development, the director specializes in the direct management of nurses. Nurses in the facility are more likely to interact with the director than with the CNO.

Clinical Nurse Manager

A clinical nurse manager, also called a nurse manager, typically reports to the director of nursing. The nurse manager is charged with overseeing a specific nursing unit, such as the orthopedic wing or the intensive care unit (ICU). At smaller facilities, some nurse managers may oversee multiple units. Nurse managers supervise the nurses in their unit, as well as other staff members, such as patient care technicians (PCAs), certified nursing assistants (CNAs) and medical unit receptionists.

A clinical nurse manager also serves as a liaison between their staff and the healthcare administration. They help their team adapt to departmental or facility-wide changes, perform unit-level administrative work and ensure that the standard of care is met or exceeded. Nurse managers typically do not provide direct patient care unless there is a severe shortage of RNs during a given shift.

Work Toward Becoming a Nurse Leader

If you can see yourself stepping into nursing leadership roles, you can develop crucial leadership skills and build a firm academic foundation at CSP Global. With our ABSN program, you could graduate with your nursing degree in 16 months. Our friendly admissions counselors are here to help you navigate the eligibility requirements and admissions process. Contact us today and take the first step toward your future!