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Nursing Leadership and Management: A Breakdown of the Roles


Editor's note: Content sponsored by University of St. Augustine for Health Sciences.

One million registered nurses are projected to retire in the United States by 2030.

Nurses with advanced leadership and management skills will be needed to deliver expert care to patients around the country. Nurse leaders and managers are highly skilled nursing professionals who work to provide top-quality healthcare. In this post, we discuss the responsibilities of nurse leaders and nurse managers, essential qualities and characteristics of nurses in leadership roles, and different leadership styles that nurses can adopt.

The main difference between nurse leaders and nurse managers

Although both positions require management and leadership skills, their job descriptions and key responsibilities differ. Both nurse leaders and managers aim to provide top-quality care in an efficient, meaningful way. But nurse leaders are more hands-on in terms of focusing on patient care, whereas nurse managers work behind the scenes on daily operations. Below, we outline the job descriptions of each position.

What is a nurse leader?

A nurse leader oversees a team of nurses, making decisions and directing patient care initiatives. They have advanced clinical knowledge and are focused on improving patient health outcomes. Some of the key responsibilities of a nurse leader include:

  • Staying up to date on the latest healthcare research
  • Working to shorten the average length of patient hospital stays and reduce readmission rates
  • Aiming to reduce healthcare costs by improving efficiency
  • Providing team members with the knowledge and tools they need to deliver top-quality care
  • Ordering and reviewing diagnostic tests
  • Developing treatment plans to improve care and patient outcomes
  • Providing care directly to patients
  • Advocating for and educating patients
  • Reducing the turnover rate of registered nurses
Nurse leaders need to communicate well with team members and efficiently delegate tasks. Empathy and compassion are a must, since they work directly with patients. Effective nurse leaders also need to have strong problem-solving and critical thinking skills.

What is a nurse manager?

Nurse managers are not typically involved in direct patient care; rather, they are focused on managing daily operations and supervising staff. The position requires an understanding of business management, as nurse managers are often in charge of budgeting. The key responsibilities of a nurse manager include:

  • Overseeing day-to-day operations
  • Supervising and providing training to team members
  • Working with various stakeholders to optimize care and meet budget requirements
  • Handling escalating situations between patients and healthcare providers
  • Designing and managing a budget
  • Overseeing insurance and other reimbursements
  • Overseeing electronic health record systems
  • Hiring and evaluating nursing staff
  • Collaborating with other managers to achieve optimal patient outcomes
Nurse managers must be able to juggle multiple priorities, communicate effectively, and work well with various stakeholders. They should be task-oriented individuals who are also able to advocate and serve as mentors for the staff members who report to them.

Essential qualities for nurses in leadership roles

Nursing leadership and management roles require commitment and in-depth knowledge of the field. Both nurse managers and nurse leaders can benefit from cultivating key managerial and leadership qualities. The actions of nurses, especially those in advanced positions, have a direct impact on patient outcomes. To excel in this field, nurses should strive to lead and manage teams as effectively as possible. Both nurse leaders and nurse managers should be proficient at:

  • Communicating with staff and motivating them
  • Thinking creatively and critically
  • Innovating new workflows
  • Delegating tasks
  • Showing compassion for others
  • Making decisions
  • Mentoring and teaching others
  • Solving problems and overcoming difficult situations

Five nursing leadership types to know

Those in nursing leadership and management positions can choose to adopt various leadership styles. Some styles are more effective than others, and you should consider which will fit best with your team. It's imperative that you avoid letting your ego or insecurities get in the way of being an effective leader or manager. Nurse managers and leaders should recognize that each person on their team contributes to the success of the group and choose a leadership style that motivates the team and promotes the organization's vision. The American Association of Nurse Assessment Coordination (AANAC) identified the following five styles of leadership for nurses:

  1. Servant leaders motivate and inspire their team by focusing on building and refining the skills of each individual.
  2. Transformational leaders clearly communicate and promote the overall vision and mission of the organization to team members.
  3. Democratic leaders encourage collaboration and open communication. They seek to improve the system rather than the skills of particular individuals.
  4. Authoritarian leaders make decisions without the input of others and punish team members for making mistakes.
  5. Laissez-faire leaders provide team members with little supervision and wait until the last minute to address issues.

Educational paths for nurse leaders and nurse managers

Nurse leaders and managers need to complete certain education and licensure requirements to practice. Requirements may vary by employer and role, but you will need at least a bachelor of science in nursing (BSN). Even better is to enhance your leadership qualifications with a graduate nursing degree. Master of science in nursing (MSN) and doctor of nursing practice (DNP) programs offer coursework and practical experience with leadership and management. They may offer role specialties such as nurse executive. A nurse executive post-graduate certification can also prepare you to take on more responsibility as a manager or leader.

Learn more about our Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) and Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) programs