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What Is a Clinical Nurse Leader?

April 27, 2021

If you're considering a nursing career specializing in research and new developments in health care, a clinical nurse leader may be the career for you. In this article, we discuss what a clinical nurse leader (CNL) is, the primary duties for a CNL, the skills you need for the role, the average salary and how you can become one yourself.

Related: A Day in the Life of a Nurse: Typical Daily Activities and Duties of an RN

What is a clinical nurse leader?

A clinical nurse leader is a highly skilled nurse who works with a patient's care team to analyze and improve the outcome of the patient's care. The new role in nursing was developed by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing to improve quality outcomes in patient care. CNLs work closely with physicians, clinical nurse specialists, pharmacists, nurse practitioners and social workers to collect and evaluate treatment results. A clinical nurse leader has advanced knowledge in general medicine rather than specializing in one area of medicine. CNLs typically work in front-line units like a home health agency, outpatient clinic or hospital unit.

What does a clinical nurse leader do?

The CNL’s primary role is to provide other health care professionals with day-to-day information or issues related to a patient’s care. Some of the primary responsibilities of a nurse clinical leader include:

  • Designing, coordinating, implementing and evaluating the treatment and care for patients, families, groups and populations
  • Pairing available data with evaluations to achieve the best possible outcomes for patients
  • Ensuring patient and care team safety by performing risk assessments and analyzing the results
  • Performing research and staying current on medical advancements to ensure patients benefit from the latest innovations
  • Serving as a resource for an entire patient care team
  • Delegating and overseeing care delivery by other staff daily
  • Leveraging technology and information systems to improve health care outcomes
  • Providing direct care for a select group of patients
  • Educating and advocating for patients, families, communities and health care teams

Related: What Is Nursing? (With Job Examples and Salaries)

How to become a clinical nurse leader

Here are the steps you can take to become a clinical nurse leader:

1. Pursue a nursing education

Clinical nurse leaders require a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree. Therefore, aspiring CNLs first must earn a Bachelor of Science degree in nursing. Upon completion, you can apply to a graduate program at an accredited college or university. An associate degree in nursing will not be accepted for the graduate program.

Related: Learn About Being a Registered Nurse (RN)

2. Pass the licensing exam

After earning your bachelor's degree in nursing, you must obtain your registered nurse designation by passing the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN). Candidates have up to six hours to complete the computerized test. It covers four categories: health promotion and maintenance, safe and effective care environment, physiological integrity and psychosocial integrity. If you pass the exam, you’ll be issued a license for the state where you took the test.

3. Pursue a Master of Science in Nursing degree

After obtaining your RN license, you can apply for and complete a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree. Courses within the program include basic care, leadership and analysis, research and data analysis. Most MSN students also will complete coursework on topics like advanced nursing concepts, biostatistics, evidence-based practice, health assessment and advanced pharmacology. Some programs also offer courses that cover collaboration methods for bringing stakeholders together to deliver the best care for patients.

4. Obtain experience

An MSN program requires CNL students to obtain between 400 and 500 hours of supervised clinical experience. At least 300 of those hours must be an immersive experience within the student's CNL role over a 10- or 15-week period. That includes weekly opportunities to discuss issues and evaluate experiences with other students, mentors and faculty. This hands-on experience exposes you to a greater depth of practice than just participating in clinical experiences.

5. Obtain the CNL certification

After earning your master's degree, you must pass the CNL certification exam offered by the Commission on Nurse Certification (CNC). The three-hour computer-based exam has 140 questions, of which 130 are scored. A proficient score on the exam is 77% or greater.

Required skills for clinical nurse leaders

There are many skills that a clinical nurse leader must have to succeed in their role, including:

  • Communication: Communication is one of the primary aspects of this role. Clinical nurse leaders listen to the needs of the patient and their family and ensure those needs are continually communicated to all health care team members. They also help streamline communication between various providers to make sure the patient receives the highest quality care.

  • Leadership skills: Clinical nurse leaders are often required to direct an entire team of nurses so they need strong leadership skills, including active listening, creativity, strategic thinking and empathy.

  • Research skills: A clinical nurse leader must stay up to date on the latest innovations and apply that knowledge to a patient's care plan to increase the likelihood of a positive outcome.

  • Multi-tasking skills: Clinical nurse leaders are responsible for planning and implementing care with other physicians, specialists and social workers and overseeing the care for a group of patients. To do this effectively and ensure each patient is properly cared for, the CNL must have strong multi-tasking skills.

Read more: Skills in Nursing: Definition and Examples

Average salary for clinical nurse leaders

The average salary for a clinical nurse leader is $81,707 per year and ranges from $15,000 to $201,000 based on geographic location, experience levels and the medical facility that they work in. For the most up-to-date salary information from Indeed, click on the salary link.

The highest-paying employers for medical and health service managers like clinical nurse leaders are government organizations, hospitals and outpatient care facilities. Employment opportunities for clinical nurse leaders are expected to grow about 32% over the next decade, which is much faster than the 4% average for all occupations.

Continuing education for clinic nurse leaders

The clinical nurse leader certification must be renewed every five years. CNLs must complete at least 50 contact hours which can include mentoring, coaching, preceptorship or clinical supervision. Recertification also requires continuing RN licensing, maintaining CNL Standards of Conduct and working at least 2,000 as CNL during the five-year certification period.


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