How to Become a Clinical Nurse Leader

Updated June 14, 2022

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Clinical nurse leaders have advanced degrees and experience in particular nursing specialties. Learn more about what they do and how to become a clinical lead nurse.

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How to Become a Clinical Nurse Leader
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Clinical nurse leaders are responsible for nursing teams, including care quality and patient outcomes. They typically work in hospitals, but may work in other healthcare settings. They lead teams or departments, teach and mentor nurses, and implement nursing policies based on evidence-based practices.

This guide describes how to become a clinical nurse leader. Keep reading to learn about the required education and certification, and what work is like for clinical lead nurses.

What Is a Clinical Nurse Leader?

Clinical nurse leaders oversee nursing teams or departments and are responsible for coordinating patient care. Clinical lead nurses must have at least a master of science in nursing (MSN) degree to become certified.

Most clinical nurse leaders work in hospitals and health systems, though they may also work in mental health facilities, clinics and urgent care centers, or independent practices. They may work as charge nurses, nursing team leaders, or in other leadership roles. Their responsibilities include team management, mentoring and training, quality assessment and improvement, and strategic planning.

Steps to Becoming a Clinical Nurse Leader

To become a clinical nurse leader, you must become an RN, gain RN experience, earn an MSN and attain certification.

How To Become a Clinical Nurse Leader

Earn an ADN or BSN Degree.

To become a nurse, you must earn either a two-year ADN or a four-year BSN degree. If you do not have the BSN, once you have RN experience, you can enroll in an RN-to-BSN bridge program or an RN-to-MSN program.

Find MSN programs
After deciding which factors are important to you in a school, use our degree finder to find programs that fit your criteria.
Pass the NCLEX Exam to Receive RN Licensure.
Common application requirements include a previous academic degree, GPA, personal statement of purpose, letters of recommendation, entrance exam score, and interviews.
Gain Clinical Nursing Experience.
As an RN, you can gain experience in different clinical areas, such as adult-geriatric, pediatric, palliative, or emergency care. Employers provide new RNs with specialized on-the-job training. Most MSN programs require or strongly prefer at least one year of experience, and most certification boards require multiple years.
Earn an MSN Degree for Clinical Nurse Leaders.
You must have an MSN degree to sit for the CNL exam. If you do not have a BSN, you can enroll in an RN-to-MSN program, and if you have a bachelor’s degree in another field and the academic prerequisites, you can enroll in a direct-entry program.
Become a Certified Clinical Nurse Leader.

The final step is board certification after passing the certifying examination. You must apply with documentation of your license, educational qualifications, and experience. To maintain your certification, you must participate in continuing education and renew your certification on a regular basis. You must also maintain a current and unencumbered nursing license.

Featured Online Master's in Nursing Programs

Clinical Nurse Leader Education

Clinical lead nurses need at least a master's degree in nursing. Some options include earning a BSN and MSN degree separately or pursuing an RN to MSN bridge program. Students can typically earn an MSN in 2-4 years depending on whether they have RN licensure before beginning the program.

BSN Degree

A BSN degree prepares you to earn an RN license and gives you the practical and theoretical knowledge that the MSN will build on. Your program will also involve clinical hours, developing your skills and learning in a real-life setting. After you graduate, you will take the NCLEX-RN examination.

  1. 1

    Admission Requirements

    Typically at least a 2.5 GPA; Some programs require or strongly recommend a 3.25 GPA; courses in biology and chemistry.

  2. 2

    Program Curriculum

    Nursing skills; human anatomy and biology; infection prevention and control; communication skills; working with diverse populations; legal and ethical aspects of nursing

  3. 3

    Time to Complete

    Typically four years

  4. 4

    Skills Learned

    Taking vital signs; using medical equipment; using feeding and breathing tubes; maintaining a hygienic environment; drawing blood and taking other samples; safe nursing practices in lifting and moving patients; maintaining health records

MSN Degree

During your MSN degree, you will build on your BSN studies and learn new skills such as informatics, management, advanced leadership topics, and advanced statistics and research.

  1. 1

    Admission Requirements

    Typically a 3.0 GPA; current and unencumbered RN license; at least one year of experience as an RN; two or more years of experience strongly preferred by many programs

  2. 2

    Program Curriculum

    Advanced nursing theory; statistics and research; informatics, leadership.

  3. 3

    Time to Complete

    Typically two years

  4. 4

    Skills Learned

    Evidence-based nursing practice; analyzing and interpreting data and research; leadership and communications; teaching and mentoring

Clinical Nurse Leader Licensure and Certification

CNL certification, offered by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, is not legally required to work as a clinical lead nurse, but employers may require or strongly prefer it. To earn your certification, you must provide documentation that you meet the application qualifications (an MSN, experience, and an current and unencumbered nursing license) and pass the certification examination. The examination is multiple choice.

Working as a Clinical Nurse Leader

Clinical lead nurses are responsible for nursing administration, including budgeting, staffing, and informatics. They are also responsible for strategy, quality assessment and improvement, leadership, and staff development.

In a large hospital or health system, a clinical lead nurse might be responsible for just a particular nursing team or function, while in a smaller setting, such as a clinic, they might be responsible for the entire nursing function.

Salaries for clinical nurse leaders are comparable to other roles that require an MSN. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), reports a median salary of $101,340 for all healthcare managers.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Clinical Nurse Leader


Are clinical nurse leaders the same as clinical nurse specialists?

Clinical nurse leaders and clinical nurse specialists both have graduate degrees in nursing and board certification. Yet, clinical nurse leader programs and certification focus on leadership and management, while clinical nurse specialists focus on a particular clinical area, such as geriatrics, palliative care, or emergency care.

What skills are important for clinical nurse leaders?

Clinical nurse leaders must be detail-oriented, have excellent communication skills, and understand the principles of administration. They must also make evidence-based decisions, motivate and inspire others, and collaborate with different departments and personnel.

What do clinical nurse leaders do?

Clinical nurse leaders are responsible for leading nursing teams, functions, or departments. They are responsible for nursing quality and outcomes, along with efficiency. They set priorities, lead the implementation of evidence-based practices, analyze outcomes, and adjust nursing practices based on outcomes, and manage staffing.

Where do clinical nurse leaders work?

Clinical nurse leaders typically work in hospitals and health systems, but they can work in any setting where nursing care is provided, such as clinics, military bases, or urgent care centers. They may also lead public health initiatives.

Last reviewed: May 27, 2022


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