Clinical Nurse Leader: The Specialized Generalist

NursingJuly 19, 2014

If you are a practicing nurse and want to take on a leadership role, but still focus on patient care, consider becoming a clinical nurse leader (CNL). While some other nurse management jobs will be largely administrative, this unique position allows you to be a patient advocate while also focusing on long-term strategic planning.

The CNL is responsible for coordinating and managing patient care, but also for diagnosing and treating issues in the health care system. For example, a CNL may develop a plan to reduce medical errors or manage conflicts.

CNL Degree

A CNL is a nurse with a master's degree. Before obtaining a Master of Science in nursing, you will need to get a Bachelor of Science in Nursing and pass the National Council Licensure Exam (NCLEX). This allows you to work as a Registered Nurse. After graduating with a master's degree, you will need to pass a certification exam from the Commission on Nurse Certifications. While you can start this journey right after obtaining your bachelor's degree, a CNL often has several years of experience working as a nurse before attending a master's program. Clinical experience will prepare you better for this role, make you a more competitive candidate, and bring issues to your attention that you can work to solve as a CNL.


The position differs from many other nursing jobs because it was intentionally created to fill a gap in the health care system. The Institute of Medicine outlined this role together with nurses. It was the first new nursing career in almost 40 years, according to the Online Journal of Issues in Nursing.

A clinical nurse leader complements a clinical nurse specialist (CNS). While a CNS focuses on managing institutional change on a macrosystem level, a CNL works to improve a microsystem or unit level. A CNL is often referred to as a nurse with advanced general knowledge, while a CNS is an advanced specialist. A CNS and CNL often work closely together since their roles sometimes overlap.

Because of the focus on microsystems, a clinical nurse leader often works more closely with patients than a CNS. If you want to continue to provide bedside care while also managing it, a job as a clinical nurse leader is a better choice.

Tags: nursing, Empower