Nurse manager vs. nurse leader: What's the difference?




Nursing is a call to leadership

By its very nature, the professional nurse role is one of leadership. Across the healthcare continuum, regardless of our role or practice setting, we are looked to as leaders. As nursing students, we are taught we will lead colleagues from other ancillary groups, oversee care teams and be accountable for patient care outcomes. Some nurses spend years leading in an informal leadership capacity, while others take on formal management and leadership roles. However, all management and leadership roles are not the same, and although the titles often are used interchangeably, they are not synonymous.

The nurse manager role up close

Whether managing a unit, division or service line, at its core the nurse manager role is to ensure everything functions like a well-oiled machine. The nurse manager is involved in myriad daily tasks and details related to patient care planning, quality improvement, goal setting and budgeting. But that’s not all. Nurse managers also oversee staff schedules and assignments, performance, professional growth and the ongoing provision of educational and career enhancement opportunities. The manager is responsible for ensuring the staff carries out all assignments and is held accountable if they’re not.

And staff members — nurses, CNAs, techs, etc. — have certain expectations for their nurse managers. They look to their managers for clear communication, direction and support in fulfilling their roles and responsibilities. They also want their managers to be available, open and honest. Nurse managers are their source for information, advice and guidance, but they also want — and deserve — encouragement, clear expectations and directions, and some teaching and coaching. Most of all, they want to be included in decision-making, recognized for their contributions and considered important to the team.

“Nurse managers are their source for information, advice and guidance, but they also want — and deserve — encouragement, clear expectations and directions, and some teaching and coaching.”

The nurse leader role up close

Upper level nurse leaders, in most instances, are less task-oriented than nurse managers. They are less hands-on and more focused on setting standards, spearheading transformation and inspiring and influencing their teams. They are charged with fulfilling the organization’s mission, vision and strategic long-range plans.

Their role involves policy setting and overseeing quality measures; dealing with regulatory compliance, certainly taking on fiscal responsibilities and more. They have responsibility and accountability for the overall quality of patient care delivery, patient and staff satisfaction, and organizational outcomes.

Both staff and management look to them for their knowledge, experience and vision. Their role is an expansive one that touches the entire organization.

Managers and leaders complement each other

Managers function best in the company of good leaders, but both roles should be filled by individuals who earn the respect and admiration of their staff, are passionate about their work and instill that passion in their staff. Both managers and leaders:

  • Must be motivators who positively influence their staff and set positive examples.
  • Must have excellent decision-making skills and should be able to coordinate teams and delegate duties.
  • Must be committed to the organization and those they lead.
Title aside, all nurses are called to leadership

The call to leadership moves all of us to a higher plane of responsibility and accountability, with or without a management title; it is inherent in all nursing positions from staff nurse to CEO. We all have similar goals and responsibilities for patient care.

“The call to leadership moves all of us to a higher plane of responsibility and accountability, with or without a management title; it is inherent in all nursing positions from staff nurse to CEO.”

With all the changes currently underway in our healthcare delivery system and the nursing profession, all nurses must strive to emulate the hallmarks of good management and leadership and never stop working on our professional growth. We all need to stay informed and be politically saavy; we need to know what our professional journals and nursing organizations are saying and advance our education.

In the end, all nurses must be visionaries, critical thinkers, skilled communicators and teachers. And the good news is you do not need a formal manager or leader title required to do any of these things.


Courses Related to ‘Leadership’

60106: Developing Your Leadership Potential (6.80 contact hrs)
This continuing education program will provide you with practical strategies that can help you establish personal plans for developing your leadership potential. You learn why it is important for nurses to develop their potential as leaders, as well as  effective leadership styles and characteristics, among other tools.

CE492: Do You Reflect a Positive Image of Nursing? (1 contact hr)
The goal of this program is to provide nurses with information on nursing and its image so they can improve the image of the profession by taking action individually and as a group.

60108: Learning to Lead (5 contact hrs)
This nursing leadership continuing education course will inform nurses about the key elements of leadership, focusing particularly on skills that enable nurses to coordinate resources and achieve desired outcomes in patient care settings. These resources may be staff, technological or financial in nature.


About the author
Eileen Williamson, MSN, RN

Eileen Williamson, MSN, RN 

Eileen Williamson, MSN, RN, is a former senior vice president and CNE at OnCourse Learning, where she led nursing programs and initiatives. She continues to write and act as a consultant for Nurse.com. Before joining the company in 1998, Eileen was employed by North Shore-Long Island Jewish Health System in New York, where she held a number of leadership positions in nursing and hospital administration, including chief nurse at two of the system’s member hospitals. She holds a BSN and an MSN in administration, and is a graduate fellow of the Johnson & Johnson University of Pennsylvania Wharton School Nurse Executives program. She also is a board member and past president of the New Jersey League for Nursing, a constituent league of the National League for Nursing.

10 responses to “Nurse manager vs. nurse leader: What’s the difference?”

  1. Thanks but I’m finishing pretty much the same classes 6/6. Wish I knew about Your’s first because the cry credits are higher.

  2. Currently I’m doing the BSN program and this information embraced​ what I’ve learnt;they complement each other.Thanks you.

  3. There is a slight difference in between nurse manager and the nurse leader. There are the nurses who spend many years managing an unusual leadership position, and the nurse manager is related to multiple daily tasks and all the details associated with the patient care plan, improvement, and budgeting.

  4. Well said Eileen! I have worked with and for many nursing managers and directors who were not leaders and of course with many leaders who carried no formal title. I feel the nurse manager role must carry both qualities in order to be effective. You must lead your team towards a common vision, to where patient centered care is the goal as well as manage the details to keep things on track. A great manager will delegate manager tasks in order to grow and teach upcoming leaders. This succession planning helps ensure the future manager understands the various tasks while remaining an influential leader. Managers must be transformation to lead, while holding staff accountable when necessary.

  5. Very insightful and truly outlined the differences between a nurse manager and a nurse leader. I wish I had this training early on in my career I would have enhanced my management and decrease my stress levels and being a nurse manager.

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