Nurse Manager vs. Nurse Leader: What's the Difference?

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The wide array of roles in the health care industry rivals that of any major corporation. The differences between entry-level, midlevel, and executive roles can be confusing, especially since some roles appear to be the same at first glance. A case in point are nurse managers and nurse leaders.

Most people can agree that managers have leadership qualities and that leaders manage people. However, when comparing nurse managers vs. nurse leaders, the differences become evident in seniority level, job duties, and the roles they play in the health care system. For example, a nurse manager effectively leads a team of nurses in a hospital or health care facility. A nurse leader, however, has an administrative position focused on higher-level tasks, such as setting policies and developing long-term plans for a facility.

Although the positions are quite different, their goal is the same. Both roles ensure their patients are provided with the best health care possible. Their methodologies are what differentiates them. Another difference is education: A nurse leader requires more education to be effective in the role. Many nurse leaders have completed a doctoral-level program, such as an online BSN to DNP.

Nurse Manager and Nurse Leader: Role and Job Duties

Nurse managers work in a hands-on role overseeing teams of nurses, whereas nurse leaders operate in a higher-level role that’s purely administrative. The best way to differentiate these roles is to examine their typical job duties.

Nurse Manager Job Duties

Nurse managers fill the supervisory role in a hospital or health care facility. In addition to managing teams of nurses, many nurse managers may use their skills and knowledge to deliver direct or indirect patient care. Nurse managers may have the following job duties:

  • Managing their department’s budget
  • Organizing the nursing shift schedule
  • Ensuring their department remains in compliance with current laws and health care regulations
  • Maintaining patient records and ensuring they remain secure
  • Hiring, training, and evaluating nurses in their department
  • Setting department goals (e.g., increasing patient satisfaction and decreasing patient wait times)
  • Observing patients and checking their vital signs
  • Providing medical care to patients (more common with the current nursing shortage)
  • Identifying areas of opportunity in their department

Nurse Leader Job Duties

Unlike nurse managers, nurse leaders have no direct interaction with patients. Instead, their main role is to oversee the entire hospital or health care facility and its processes. Nurse leaders have the following job duties:

  • Setting standards and best practices to improve the quality of patient care
  • Evaluating current health care processes and identifying opportunities for improvement
  • Developing new procedures and overseeing their implementation
  • Meeting with stakeholders to provide progress reports and develop strategies
  • Ensuring nurses and other hospital staff align with the health care organization’s vision and mission

Nurse leader wearing a lab coat and smiling with medical professionals in the background.

Nurse Manager and Nurse Leader: Core Similarities

Although nurse managers and nurse leaders have different job roles and day-to-day duties, some important aspects unite them. The main similarity is the goal of improving the health care experience for patients.

Nurse leaders and nurse managers also overlap in base education and experience. Both roles require at least a master’s-level education, such as a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree. Additionally, job candidates for both positions need several years of on-the-job nursing experience before becoming nurse managers or nurse leaders. Finally, both roles oversee staff and should possess the leadership skills to motivate employees.

Nurse Manager vs. Nurse Leader: Core Differences

The key differences between the roles of nurse manager and nurse leader follow:

Job Duties

As mentioned, nurse managers are more hands-on with patients and have consistent day-to-day interaction with their teams of nurses. Nurse leaders play an administrative role and generally interact only with high-ranking health care personnel.

Work Environment

Nurse managers are usually on the hospital floor working with their teams of front-line medical personnel. On the other hand, since nurse leaders operate in an administrative capacity, they typically work in an office setting.

Level of Authority

Nurse managers have direct authority over teams in their facilities. They train and oversee nurses in their departments, while also performing managerial tasks such as scheduling, budgeting, and setting  goals. Nurse leaders have a higher-level role and more authority over their health care facilities. The policies or procedures they establish can affect everyone instead of a single department.

Salaries and Job Outlook

Because of the level of authority and duties of each role, the salaries for the two roles differ. The salaries can vary based on experience, location, education, and other factors.

PayScale reports that the average nurse manager makes an approximate annual salary of $88,060, according to figures from January 2022. Nurse leaders are estimated to make quite a bit more than that; the average nurse executive earned an approximate annual salary of $122,863 as of August 2021.

Nurse leader salaries can vary widely. A 2019 Salary and Compensation Study for Nurse Leaders by the American Organization for Nursing Leadership (AONL) says that 57% of nurse leaders earned between $90,000 and $169,999 a year.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that the job outlook for all medical and health services managers, including both roles, is projected to increase by 32% between 2020 and 2030, meaning there should be ample opportunity for prospective nurse managers and leaders.

Comparing How to Become a Nurse Manager vs. Nurse Leader

The base nurse manager vs. nurse leader educational path is generally the same but diverges at a certain point. Both roles require a master’s degree and registered nurse (RN) experience, which means the majority of those in either role start by completing the BSN program before taking the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN). Then the candidate is clear to become licensed as an RN.

Aspiring nurse managers may pursue a master’s-level education in nursing, health care, or business. The MSN/Master of Business Administration (MBA) program is a popular choice for nurse managers because it covers the health care and business aspects of working in a hospital or health care facility. Additionally, nurse managers should pursue the Certified Nurse Manager and Leader (CNML) credential; the industry-recognized credential shows the candidate has the skills and qualities to be effective as a nurse manager.

For those who wish to become nurse leaders, a master’s degree is also required; however, many aspiring nurse leaders take their education a step further by completing a BSN-DNP program. This additional education further enables them to take on a leadership role, elevates their overall profile, and better equips them to develop meaningful health care policies. Finally, nurse leaders must obtain the Certified in Executive Nursing Practice (CENP) credential to demonstrate they have the knowledge and expertise to be effective in an executive-level role.

Take the First Step to Become a Nurse Manager or Nurse Leader

Many similarities and differences result when making the nurse manager vs. nurse leader comparison. The main takeaway is that each position plays an important role in the health care system. One is more involved with direct care and management, while the other seeks to improve the health care experience through policy and organizational processes.

The ability to make a positive impact with patients, competitive compensation, and the job stability of working in the continually growing health care field make either role worthy. Those who are interested in pursuing an advanced nursing role should explore Hawai‘i Pacific University’s online BSN to DNP program. It features a curriculum approved by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN), ensuring students gain the skills and knowledge they need to manage or lead in the health care industry.

Explore Hawai‘i Pacific University’s program today, so you can begin your journey of making a difference as a nurse manager or nurse leader

Recommended Reading:

Developing a Wellness Toolbox for Your Mental Health

Overcoming Cross-Cultural Communication Barriers in Nursing

What Is Evidence-Based Practice in Nursing?


American Organization for Nursing Leadership, Certified in Executive Nursing Practice Certification

American Organization for Nursing Leadership, Certified Nurse Manager and Leader Certification

American Organization for Nursing Leadership, Salary and Compensation Study for Nurse Leaders

Indeed, Nurse Manager Job Description: Top Duties and Qualifications

Indeed, Nurse Leaders and Managers: Key Qualities, Roles and Duties

Indeed, Nursing Leadership and Management: Role Definitions and Differences

PayScale, Average Nurse Executive Salary

PayScale, Average Nursing Manager Salary

PayScale, Salary for Certification: Nurse Executive Certification

Relias, “Nursing Leadership: What Is it and Why Is It Important?”

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Medical and Health Services Managers