What Is the Role of the Nurse Executive as a Leader?

Explore HPU

This will only take a moment
. What NP specialization are you most interested in?
What NP specialization are you most interested in?

Every day, teams of nurses and other front-line medical personnel work tirelessly to ensure patients get the high-quality health care they need, and nursing is arguably one of the most important jobs in health care today. For a hospital or other health care facility to run efficiently, nurses need to be well-trained and provided with all the resources they need. Nurse executives are the ones who ensure their staffs have everything they need to deliver patient care and run their facilities effectively. These executives also help shape the next generation of nurses by setting a good example, demonstrating values and ethics, and serving as leaders of their teams and facilities.

The role of the nurse executive as a leader involves overseeing multiple facets of a health care organization’s operations. They ensure their facilities are fully staffed and that their teams of nurses have every resource they require to do their jobs. Although they go by several different titles, such as chief nursing officer (CNO), vice president of nursing, or director of nursing, the core job function of a nurse executive remains consistent. Whether it’s a major hospital, small private clinic, or nursing home, nurse executives make sure these facilities have the teams and resources to provide patient care.

Even though their role is purely administrative in nature, all nurse executives begin their careers as as staff nurses. For those interested in the role, the best first step is to pursue a nursing degree, such as an Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree.

The Role of Nurse Executive as a Leader

Nurse executives carry out many duties, but their main role is to be leaders to their teams of nurses. This means that they must effectively convey their organizations’ values, goals, and missions, so everyone is on the same page. Additionally, nurse executives and their teams must be committed to following all health care regulations and laws.

Although nurse executives don’t work with patients directly, their teams of nurses do, making them responsible for delivering patient care by proxy. In addition to working with teams of nurses, nurse executives regularly collaborate with other health care leaders in their organizations to ensure the mission is being effectively executed and best practices are being followed.

The role of nurse executive as a leader is a blend of leader and role model. Nurse executives  effectively set the tone for their nurses so they have a good example to follow. The difference between a good nurse executive and a great one is the ability to inspire others, especially during challenging times. To be effective in the position, a nurse executive must hold a combination of nursing education, clinical experience, and highly developed leadership skills.

What Are Common Nurse Executive Duties?

Nurse executives are leaders by nature, but their day-to-day tasks are predominantly administrative, since they don’t work directly with patients. However, their nursing education and clinical training make them well-suited to train and develop nursing staff, as well as perform other essential duties for their team. The most common duties of a nurse executive include the following:

  • Responsibly managing hospital finances
  • Hiring and training health care professionals
  • Overseeing a team of nurses responsible for the facility’s patient care
  • Providing the required medical tools and resources to a team of nurses
  • Developing policies and procedures intended to improve the quality and efficiency of patient care

The role of nurse executive is as challenging as that of a front-line medical worker, although not in the same way. Perhaps the most difficult challenge that nurse executives face is ensuring their facilities have enough medical supplies to be effective during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For example, N95 and KN95 masks, which are vital to protect hospital staff, are in extremely high demand. Nurse executives ensure their medical teams have these masks and other protective gear. Additionally, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reports that many hospitals still don’t have enough ventilators to effectively provide care for COVID-19 patients with lung issues. Nurse executives are in charge of procuring essential equipment for their facilities.

Supply issues and the current health care landscape have made the role of nurses more challenging than it was a few years ago. Competent and effective nurse executives are needed more than ever to keep their teams calm under pressure and make sure they have the appropriate resources.

Nurse executive working at a desk on a laptop.

What Are the Characteristics of a Nurse Executive?

Nurse executives are responsible for their teams of nurses and the patients receiving care in their facilities. This high-level role requires multitasking, performing administrative duties, working directly with nurses and other health care professionals, and ensuring operations are conducted with the facility’s values and mission statement in mind.

To be successful, nurse executives should possess the following:

  • Strong interpersonal and communication skills
  • Extensive clinical training and nursing education
  • Leadership skills and the ability to inspire
  • Effective management skills
  • Business acumen and professionalism

The role of the nurse executive as a leader is what makes the nurse executive uniquely qualified to oversee and develop a large team of nurses in addition to carrying out many high-level administrative duties.

How to Become a Nurse Executive

All nurse executives must hold an active registered nurse (RN) license even though their role is administrative, so the first step to becoming a nurse executive is to obtain licensure. Completing a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) program from an accredited university, followed by passing the National Council Licensure Examination for Registered Nurses (NCLEX-RN), will qualify a candidate for their nursing license. This lays the foundation for getting the clinical training and nursing experience a nurse executive needs to be effective in the role.

Next, the candidate needs to complete an applicable master’s degree program to satisfy the minimum- level education requirements. A Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) or Master of Health Care Administration (MHA)/Master of Business Administration (MBA) are all acceptable choices.

Once the candidate has completed a master’s program, the final step is to pass the Certified in Executive Nursing Practice (CENP) exam to earn certification, which the American Organization for Nursing Leadership (AONL) offers. The CENP certification solidifies a candidate’s abilities and knowledge as they pertain to nursing executive management. Those with a master’s degree and an active RN license will need two years of experience to sit for the exam.

Take the First Step Toward Becoming a Nurse Executive Today

Nurse executive is one of the highest-level positions a registered nurse can aspire to in the health care field. The ability to lead and develop large teams of nurses and continually provide their facilities with the resources they need makes nurse executives essential to success. The role of the nurse executive as a leader can be what inspires nurses to deliver their very best patient care.

A hospital or other health care facility requires steady, competent leadership to set the example for its team of nurses. For those who aspire to the role of nurse executive, the best place to start is by furthering their education. Hawai‘i Pacific University’s online MSN program features three concentrations and a curriculum that the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) has approved, ensuring students gain the knowledge and nursing skills to deliver effective patient care.

Explore Hawai‘i Pacific University’s program today so you can begin your journey to becoming a nurse executive.

Recommended Reading:

Burnout vs. Compassion Fatigue in Nursing

How to Get Your Hawai‘i Nurse License

The Importance of a Nurse’s Role in Patient Safety


American Hospital Association, Role of the Nurse Executive in Patient Safety

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

American Organization for Nursing Leadership, Nurse Executive Competencies

ANA Enterprise, Chief Nursing Officer / Chief Nurse Executive

Houston Chronicle, “The Characteristics of Nurse Executives”

Indeed, What Is a Nurse Executive? A Definitive Career Guide

U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Medical Device Shortages During the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency