Nurse Manager or Nurse Leader?

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Nursing is a call to leadership, according to Eileen Williamson, MSN, RN, writing for She noted that nurse managers and nurse leaders are two nursing roles that emphasize leadership.

Discover more about the responsibilities of nurse managers and nurse leaders and the similarities and differences between these two roles.

Nurse in hospital hall using a digital tabletNurse Managers Deal with Details; 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. Nurse managers deal with the details of healthcare units and divisions to make sure they function smoothly, according to Williamson. They stay involved in daily tasks that benefit healthcare facilities in the short term, such as supervising staff schedules and reviewing employee performance.

Williamson stated that nurse leaders are typically less task-orientated than nurse managers. Their responsibilities focus on a healthcare facility’s long-term vision, such as ensuring regulatory compliance, overseeing quality measures, and developing policies.

Working as a Nurse Manager

Nurse managers oversee nursing units, divisions, and service lines, according to Williamson. This responsibility extends beyond a nurse manager’s regular shifts, according to the American Organization of Nurses. A nurse manager is always ultimately 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. Johnson & Johnson’s Campaign for Nursing, for example, observes that nurse managers provide this link by closely communicating with other nurses, physicians, and other healthcare facility professionals.

According to literature developed for the Campaign for Nursing, a nurse manager may spend much time recruiting new nursing talent, retaining staff, and overseeing their performance. In this role, Williamson mentioned that nurse managers also perform tasks related to patient care planning, goal setting, budgeting, and improving healthcare operational quality.

Working as a Nurse Leader

Nurse leaders aim to advance the mission and vision for their respective healthcare organizations. They may develop policies for their facilities, ensuring that their facilities comply with existing regulations and can implement new mandates, and advancing organizational change, Williamson stated. Nurse leaders assume the greatest responsibility for quality of patient care, employee and patient satisfaction levels, and organizational outcomes. They may also have some responsibility for their healthcare facilities’ 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 edition of Nurse Leader. These crises may come from natural disasters, terrorism, or large-scale health epidemics.

Nurse leaders must maintain a controlled exterior to instill calm in others during times of crisis, according to Edmonson et al. They help develop plans of action and communicate these plans openly to reduce panic and make sure other employees understand their roles. They may also communicate with media representatives to make sure the public understands the crisis and resulting actions taken.

Nurse Leaders Focus Strategically on Overall Organizational Advancement

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 entire healthcare facilities.

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. Williamson observed that nurse technicians and certified nursing assistants look to nurse managers for direction and support in their jobs. Nurse managers become valuable resources for advice and information, including staff scheduling, performance reviews and appraisals, and professional development assistance.

Nurse Managers Have More Diverse Workplace Options

Johnson & Johnson’s Campaign for Nursing notes that nurse leaders and nurse managers both commonly work at hospitals and ambulatory care centers. However, this source stated that many nurse managers also work at long-term care centers.

Long-term care centers are facilities responsible for patients’ physical and emotional needs over a long length of time, according to The National Care Planning Council (NCPC). Patients may enter a long-term care facility with a terminal condition, serious illness or injury, disability, or other health concern.

According to the NCPC, an estimated 60 percent 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 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

Johnson & Johnson’s Campaign for Nursing noted that nurse leaders must have a Master of Science in Nursing degree. Nurse managers have greater flexibility within their educational career. While literature produced for the Campaign for Nursing notes that nurse managers may obtain a Master of Science in Nursing to secure their roles, they could alternatively pursue a Master in Healthcare or Business Administration degree.

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

Nurses May Take on One or Both Roles

Williamson emphasized that both nurse managers and nurse leaders share similar characteristics. Both nursing professionals must be respected individuals passionate about their roles and their organizations with the ability to inspire a similar passion in their employees. They must also both excel at decision making and delegating duties.

Due to the clear overlap between the roles, nurses with the proper qualifications and experience may find themselves taking on both roles within their organization: nurse managers and nurse leaders, according to Maryville University.

Literature produced for the Campaign for Nursing further observed that a Master of Science in Nursing degree prepares nurse leaders and nurse managers for their leadership responsibilities. Online nurse practitioner programs provide flexible educational opportunities for nurses looking to advance to leadership positions. Explore the Maryville University Online Master of Science in Nursing degree program website to learn more about curriculum offerings within a leadership perspective approach to nursing.

Sources – Nurse manager vs. nurse leader: What’s the difference?

Discover Nursing – Clinical Nurse Leader

Discover Nursing – Nurse Manager

Nurse Leader – Crisis Management: The Nurse Leader’s Role

American Organization for Nursing Leadership – Nurse Manager Competencies

National Care Planning Council – About Long Term Care