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Clinical Nurse Leader Career Path: 5 Steps

Nursing is a noble profession that requires dedication, compassion, and a commitment to lifelong learning. Nursing is a career with the largest employment numbers in the US; a total of 4.2 million RNs (registered nurses) in the country. Nursing involves providing well-rounded care and support to individuals, families, and communities. While many nurses are content to provide exceptional patient care at the bedside, others aspire to become leaders in their field. 

Nurse leaders are instrumental in improving patient outcomes, advocating for nursing staff, and shaping healthcare policies. If you are a nurse who is interested in taking on a leadership role, there are several steps you can take to develop the necessary skills and knowledge. 

This article will explore the essential steps to becoming a nurse leader and how you can impact the healthcare industry.

Steps to Become a Clinic Nurse Leader

Step 1: Obtain the Necessary Education and Training

You must obtain the necessary education and training to become a nurse leader. Typically, this involves earning a bachelor’s or master’s degree in nursing. Some nursing leadership positions may require a doctoral degree. According to the AACN, over 28,000 students were enrolled in MSN programs in 2019, and over 7,000 were enrolled in DNP programs. 

During your nursing education, you will learn about the fundamental principles of nursing, including patient care, ethics, and communication. You will also learn leadership skills, such as strategic planning, financial management, and human resource management. Your nursing education and training will lay the foundation for your career as a nurse leader.

Some leadership roles may require you to hold an additional nursing leadership-oriented degree. A CNL degree is explicitly designed to prepare registered nurses to take on advanced roles in healthcare. 

You can enroll in a program accredited by the Commission on Collegiate Nursing Education (CCNE) that provides students with a comprehensive curriculum that includes advanced nursing practice, leadership, and evidence-based practice. 

Look for a CNL program that is delivered in a hybrid format, allowing students to complete coursework online while participating in clinical experiences at approved healthcare facilities. Graduates of the CNL program are eligible to take the national CNL certification exam and are prepared to pursue leadership roles in various healthcare settings.

Step 2: Gain Clinical Experience

Gaining clinical experience is an essential step to becoming a nurse leader. As a registered nurse, you will work with patients in various healthcare settings, such as hospitals, clinics, and long-term care facilities. 

This experience will give you valuable knowledge and skills to help you become a successful nurse leader. According to the BLS, there were over 3 million registered nurses in the US in 2021, with the job outlook projected to grow 6% between 2021 and 2031. 

The amount of clinical experience required to become a clinical nurse leader varies depending on the organization, but most require at least 3-5 years of experience working as a registered nurse.

Working as a clinical nurse will help you develop essential qualities such as empathy, communication, and critical thinking. These qualities are essential for effective leadership in nursing.

Step 3: Develop Your Leadership Skills

Nurses are often at the frontline of the crisis. Managing and leading a team requires agility in the face of adversity. You must prepare beforehand and improve your team-building and leadership skills to take on more advanced roles.

Look for opportunities to take on leadership roles within your healthcare organization, such as leading a committee or project. A Robert Wood Johnson Foundation report found that leadership skills, such as effective communication and teamwork, were essential for nurses to provide high-quality patient care. 

Collaborating with teams that include professionals from different backgrounds and disciplines can help you develop collaboration and teamwork skills.

Focus on developing effective communication, including active listening, clarity, and empathy. A study published in the Journal of Nursing Education found that leadership development programs focused on mentorship and self-reflection were influential in developing leadership skills in nursing students.

Leaders are often called upon to solve complex problems. Develop your critical thinking and problem-solving skills to be better equipped to handle challenges that may arise.

Read books, attend conferences and workshops, and pursue leadership programs. A Journal of Nursing Management study found that participation in leadership development programs improved nurses’ leadership skills and positively impacted patient outcomes. You may also seek out mentors who are experienced in nursing leadership and can provide guidance.

Step 4: Obtain Certification

Many organizations require clinic nurse leaders to obtain certification in nursing leadership. Examples include the Nurse Executive Certification (NE-BC) or the Advanced Nurse Executive Certification (NEA-BC).

The American Nurses Credentialing Center offers the Nurse Executive certification designed for nurses in leadership roles. According to the ANCC, there are currently over 3,000 nurses certified as Nurse Executives in the United States. 

Step 5: Pursue Career Advancement Opportunities

Once you have become a clinical nurse leader, many career advancement opportunities are available. Some clinic nurse leaders may pursue executive-level positions, such as a healthcare organization’s Chief Nursing Officer (CNO). Others may choose to specialize in a particular area of healthcare, such as oncology or pediatrics.

The career outlook for clinic nurse leaders is strong, with demand for nursing leadership expected to grow in the coming years. According to the BLS, employment of medical and health services managers, which includes clinic nurse leaders, is projected to grow by 32% from 2019 to 2029, much faster than the average.


In conclusion, becoming a nurse leader is a challenging journey. It requires dedication, passion, and continuous learning. As a nurse leader, you will play a vital role in shaping the healthcare industry and the lives of countless patients. 

Following the steps outlined in this article, you can develop the skills and knowledge necessary to become a successful nurse leader. Remember to stay focused and motivated, and always strive for excellence. Your hard work will eventually pay off, and you will become a beacon of hope and inspiration for future nurses.

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