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Nurse Leader vs. Nurse Manager: Differences and How to Advance

Written by: University of Tulsa   •  Mar 26, 2024
Nurse Manager Talking With a Patient and Pointing to Something on a Clipboard.

Nurse Leader vs. Nurse Manager: Differences and How to Advance

In health care, the primary goal is to provide the highest quality of care possible to improve patient outcomes. It’s a goal that’s achieved by accomplishing key objectives relating to optimized services, reduced costs, improved population health, and greater care equity. These objectives are guided by pillars known as the 4 Cs of primary care: first contact, comprehensiveness, coordination, and continuity. By adhering to these guidelines, a facility can provide the type of holistic approach that can make its primary goal attainable.

In nursing, nurse leaders and nurse managers are essential to establishing and reinforcing the guardrails that allow a health care facility to remain focused on the 4 Cs and achieve the objectives that ultimately lead to better care. However, the roles of a nurse leader vs. a nurse manager in this process are different. This difference is important, as it allows those in either role to work together to ensure that goals are established and met in the most efficient manner possible.

For those looking to advance their nursing careers, a nurse leader and a nurse manager position provide a terrific opportunity to make a difference in care delivery on a larger scope. However, before pursuing either role, it’s important to understand what makes the two professions different, how to become them, and how they can fit together within the context of proper care delivery.

Nurse Leader vs. Nurse Manager: The Similarities

Nurse leader and nurse manager roles are advanced nursing roles that are essential in a facility’s ability to provide optimal care. While nurse leaders and nurse managers approach this goal in different ways, they carry out their respective roles by using a similar skill set. For example, both positions require strong leadership skills, as their work carries a direct impact on nursing staff and their functionality. Both roles also require collaboration with a wide range of health care professionals, so they must be adept when it comes to teamwork and cooperation to ensure streamlined care delivery strategies. 

Nurse leaders and nurse managers can also interact with patients as well as other professionals. As such, they both need to be proficient in different types of communication, including oral and written. Their patient interactions require them to have the right measure of emotional intelligence to provide sympathy for patients and come to equitable solutions with fellow professionals in times of disagreement.

In addition, nurse leaders and nurse managers must possess a certain level of technical proficiency. This is due in part to the influx of technology-driven care delivery concepts, such as health informatics, proliferating in the nursing field. Those in either role need to know how various technological concepts function, so they can properly lead or manage nursing staff members who may use these concepts as part of their daily duties. 

Nurse Leader vs. Nurse Manager: The Differences

Their primary objectives are key to what separates the nurse leader vs. the nurse manager. A nurse leader focuses on developing and promoting a health care facility’s primary vision. A nurse manager, on the other hand, oversees the execution of this vision.

The differences between the two roles are further fleshed out by examining the respective job duties. Nurse leaders track the latest innovations, regulatory changes, and research trends to develop strategies that integrate new concepts and adjust existing ones. They also craft goals that commonly point to big-picture operational concepts, such as evidence-based practice and value-based care. Conversely, nurse managers oversee the daily activities that move a health care facility toward optimally meeting these goals. This involves executing tasks such as supervising team members, overseeing budgets, managing technology-driven systems (electronic health records), and handling insurance needs.

The difference between the two positions extends to the compensation associated with each role. According to Payscale, the median annual salary for nurse leaders was approximately $114,120 as of October 2023. Payscale also lists the median annual salary for nurse managers at approximately $95,000 as of February 2024.

Advanced Roles and Advanced Education

Technically speaking, there can be a difference in education level between a nurse leader and a nurse manager. Nurse leader positions typically require a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) degree, whereas the educational benchmark for nurse managers is a bachelor’s degree. 

However, prospective nurse managers can also benefit from an advanced degree, such as an MSN. Doing so can expand their potential opportunities, as some employers prefer to hire nurse managers with advanced degrees. It can also fortify and deepen an individual’s knowledge and skill set, better preparing them for directly meeting the tasks associated with the role. A program’s coursework typically shapes this process by focusing on elements that are essential for success in a managerial role, such as budgeting, staffing, and performance management.

Ultimately, an advanced degree can also prepare a nurse manager to eventually pursue a role as a nurse leader. Gaining experience in guiding nursing staff members toward reaching their goals can allow them to gain the type of hands-on insight that could lead to the development of feasible health care strategies as a leader. Having that kind of insight could potentially be alluring for employers seeking to fill leadership roles with qualified individuals.

Pursue a Critical Career

The differences between a nurse leader vs. a nurse manager are distinct enough to make them two separate roles. However, each plays an essential part in helping a health care facility achieve its primary goal of optimizing care that can potentially improve patient outcomes. Whichever career path an individual takes, they’ll be in a position to make a big difference in health care and ultimately in the lives of others.

The University of Tulsa’s online RN to MSN Pathway program can get you ready for whatever advanced nursing career you wish to pursue. Our fully online program is designed to efficiently help you develop the knowledge and skills you need to meet the challenges of nursing management and leadership with immense confidence, all at a pace that fits around your busy schedule. Learn how we can guide you toward making a difference.

Recommended Readings

Achieving Health Care Justice: Breaking Down Racial Disparities in Health Care

Director of Nursing: Salary and How to Become One

How to Become a Chief Nursing Officer


American Medical Informatics Association, Informatics: Research and Practice

American Nurses Association, What Is Evidence-Based Practice in Nursing?

Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, Value-Based Care Spotlight

Elation, “Understanding the 4 Cs of Primary Care”

Indeed, “Nurse Leader vs. Nurse Manager (With Roles and Differences)”

Indeed, “Nurse Manager: What They Do, Skills and Job Requirements”

Indeed, “What Is a Clinical Nurse Leader?”

Payscale, Average Clinical Nurse Leader With Leadership Skills Salary

Payscale, Average Nursing Manager Salary

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