Nursing Leadership and Management: Role Definitions and Differences

Updated June 30, 2023

Nursing leadership and management are healthcare fields that require a high level of knowledge and expertise. Although this quality and others are similar between nursing leadership and nursing management, these two roles differ in several aspects. The variations between a nursing leader and a nurse manager include differences in the responsibilities they take on, the credentials they possess and the tasks they perform. In this article, we define nursing leadership and management roles, explain the major differences between the two and discuss the qualities of successful nursing leaders and managers.

What is nursing leadership and management?

Nursing leadership and management refer to the roles of nursing professionals who direct nursing staff, oversee the organizational structure of medical processes and lead nursing teams in providing patient care. While many nurses take on informal leadership roles throughout their careers, there are several differences between nurse leaders and nurse managers.

Nursing leadership

Nursing leadership is the practice of leading initiatives that improve nursing practices and outcomes. Nurse leaders rely on their ability to motivate and inspire nursing teams and staff in the development of high-quality practices and patient care methodologies. These professionals usually work in higher-level nursing and leadership roles and take a less hands-on approach to nursing than nursing managers do.

For instance, a nurse leader responsible for overseeing and executing new care policies will focus on strategic planning and collaborating with nursing staff, while a nurse manager will focus on carrying out the initiative and managing nursing teams and departments in implementing care strategies with patients.

Nurse management

Nurse management is the process of directing teams and nursing departments to maintain best practices and organization when providing care to patients. Nurse managers direct the daily processes and routines of the medical facility they work in, and they instruct nursing staff through hands-on approaches to ensure the efficacy of patient care and treatment plans.

Nurse managers are responsible for overseeing hiring, staffing and performance reviews for their teams. Nursing management roles rely on leadership skills, but nurse managers continue to work directly with patients and nursing teams to carry out incentives that nursing leaders introduce.

Related: 6 Nursing Strengths to Highlight During Your Job Search

Nurse leaders vs. nurse managers

Nurse leaders and nurse managers differ in the tasks they perform on the job, the roles they take on in their organizations, the credentials they possess and the educational background they complete. The following career elements best illustrate the differences between nurse leaders and nurse managers:

  • Tasks

  • Roles

  • Education

  • Credentials


The tasks and responsibilities generally differ for nurse leaders and nurse managers. For instance, nurse leaders set practice standards and policies, initiate transformation and change in the medical environment and influence nursing teams and staff. Nurse leaders ultimately work toward fulfilling an organization's vision, mission and long-term objectives.

Nurse managers are typically in direct contact with patients, and they work to direct and instruct their teams and departments. Many nurse managers are in charge of performing and directing other nurses during patient procedures, treatment and record maintenance.


Nurse leaders and managers take on different roles throughout their careers, depending on their specialties and qualifications. Nurse leaders perform leadership functions throughout a medical organization such as leading department and facility changes, developing innovative methods to provide better patient care and pioneering the way their organizations accomplish objectives and align with core values.

A nurse manager may take on leadership roles throughout their career, but their main role within a medical organization is to direct the processes of patient care, treatment plans, procedures and nursing practices. The nurse manager role essentially oversees nursing teams and supervises critical nursing processes like reporting and documentation.

Related: Learn About Being a Director of Nursing


The educational backgrounds can sometimes differ between nursing leadership and management roles. For instance, a nursing leadership role like a clinical nurse leader (CNL) can require different educational training than a nurse management role like a patient care director. Often, they'll study different subjects, disciplines and majors during college.


While both nursing leadership and nursing management roles require nursing certification and credentials, leadership roles are often defined through the Certification in Executive Nursing Practice (CENP) credential, while nurse managers are often required to possess the Certified Nurse Manager and Leader (CNML) credential.

For instance, the Certification in Executive Nursing Practice (CENP) credential allows nursing leaders to work in executive-level and administrative roles within a healthcare organization. Conversely, a nurse manager with the Certified Nurse Manager and Leader (CNML) certification will work closely with nursing staff to organize and supervise patient care and treatment, directly influencing and managing outcomes.

What qualities are essential to nursing leadership and management?

Although nursing leadership and management differ in some aspects, the two roles share several similarities in skill sets, including:

  • Leadership skills

  • Teamwork skills

  • Technical skills

  • Communication skills

  • Emotional intelligence

Leadership skills

Nursing leadership and management both require leadership skills. Nurses who take on supervisory roles to direct their teams and maintain organizational structure in their practices possess leadership skills that have an influence on their career success. For instance, the abilities to motivate team members, improve nursing practices and develop effective treatment plans are examples of how both nursing leaders and managers apply their leadership skills.

Related: 5 Must-Have Skills For Your Nursing Resume

Teamwork skills

Nurse leaders and nurse managers work with a diverse range of healthcare professionals in their careers. Consequently, both positions depend on the ability to collaborate with teammates, give and receive feedback and share ideas with staff and supervisors. Teamwork skills in these professions are crucial to navigate company culture and foster healthy relationships with colleagues.

Technical skills

Technical skills that encompass computer and database literacy are essential for working in a nursing leadership or management role. Nurses in leadership positions often use company databases and reporting software programs to document, sort and organize important medical information. The nature of some administrative and executive nursing roles (like clinical informatics management) requires nurses to work with this type of technology on a regular basis, so technical skills in nursing leadership and management can be highly beneficial to succeed in these career fields.

Communication skills

Nurses are communicators. They work with patients and healthcare professionals daily, and they apply effective communication skills to succeed in their jobs. Therefore, nursing leaders and managers should be skilled in written communication, verbal and nonverbal communication and the ability to connect with people and build relationships.

Emotional intelligence

Nurses in leadership roles depend on their emotional intelligence to interact with their patients and teammates. The ability to care for patients, empathize with others' feelings and ideas and seek understanding in their interactions at work are several essential skills nursing leaders and nurse managers should be able to demonstrate with their emotional intelligence.

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