What does it take to become a clinical nurse leader?

Woman in scrubs taking notes while man in white coat points at tablet.

Before you become a clinical nurse leader, you’ll need the proper education and experience. Programs like a Masters in nursing online that is accredited to prepare individuals with the competencies delineated in the AACN white paper CNL Competencies and Curricular Expectations for Education and Practice can provide a gateway to this important and especially relevant position. Because the CNL has a number of specialties, the way to prepare is to follow a comprehensive track for development, with all of the core skills you’ll need on the job.

Each of the steps along the way will come with its own challenges. Look at the overall progression toward a CNL job piece by piece and you’ll understand the importance of each element.


First of all, a Master’s degree that is accredited to prepare individuals with the competencies delineated in the AACN white paper CNL Competencies and Curricular Expectations for Education and Practice is essential for this position, on top of the required previous years of credentials. This level of education prepare you to take the CNL Certification exam and certification reflects the extra level of professionalism associated with this role, and can be a reason to position yourself for an online Master of Science in Nursing degree or similar program to easily reach this goal.

While much of the first part of your education may seem similar to the traditional nursing pathway, there are other competencies that the CNL role will specifically require. A 2017 list of “Recommended Clinical Practice Experiences” from the American Association of Colleges of Nursing mentioned several of these points, which can include work on the following levels:

  • Disciplines: Being a leader in this field will require you to work with staff from different backgrounds and specialties. This can be as simple as a meeting with the other members on staff or communicating important information for plans and projects that you might develop yourself so they can take root throughout the entire company.
  • Facility: Much of the work a CNL does could focus on the “microsystem,” meaning the specific team that the CNL works with, perhaps at a single facility. This may include both working within such a system itself and assessing how this system functions with the external entities it interacts with. Preparing these systems for better performance and communication can also be part of the process of adjusting to CNL work.
  • Organization: Outside of the specific practice, your CNL responsibilities might also require you to interact with larger care groups for shared plans and projects. The practices document gives the examples of a committee or task force, which a student can take part in as they research CNL duties beforehand.
  • Patient: As part of the CNL commitment to improving outcomes, you can use available information to spearhead projects to help better treat patients. This can involve either one patient individually or a cohort, but in any case you should be ready to communicate these details to different audiences and keep the overall health of the patient population in mind.

In all of these cases, the document suggests that you train for your role and gain experience in different ways. This may not only be helpful for your eventual CNL job, but as preparation for certification as well, since the exam will test you in several of these areas.


As with many issues for aspiring CNL candidates, the AACN has resources to help you prepare for this test, based on the necessary competencies and the type of questions you’ll face. The October 2013 “Competencies and Curricular Expectations” document contained a list of “Master’s Essentials and Clinical Nurse Leader Competencies” in this vein. Using this and other similar guides can give you a course to follow from education to eventual job placement.

There are too many of these competencies to list here, but the general breadth of it involves many of the skills mentioned above, including bringing different aspects of the job to respective participant groups. In some cases, these competencies vastly outnumber the amount of education essentials mentioned in the same document.

For example, the traits listed under the “Clinical Prevention and Population Health for Improving Health” section include developing relevant services, monitoring plan outcomes and engaging with different partners to assess the results. Following this model, training for the exam can test skills on multiple levels, fitting the ways they may manifest in the position.

As the AANC has also stated, the Commission on Nurse Certification is the overseeing body for the CNL Certification Program, making it an important group to watch when studying for the exam itself. The actual test involves 140 questions, of which 130 are scored.

<h2>What to expect in the job itself</h2>

With these qualifications met, you’ll be ready for the job itself, which should flow naturally from the skills you’ve already fostered. Based on some of the available data, here are statistics and important figures that might help you get a better idea of what the job entails:

  • Benefits: A 2016 report from the American Organization of Nursing Executives asked several of those in leadership positions in the nursing field about their level of satisfaction with their benefits. This data said that 35 percent were “very satisfied” with the benefits of their job, while 37 percent were “somewhat satisfied.” Only 2 percent of respondents said they were “not at all satisfied.” While this didn’t single out the CNL role, specifically, it might have possible implications for the field as a whole.
  • Salary: As of this writing, Glassdoor said that the national average salary for this position was estimated to be $96,836. PayScale pinpointed the median salary at $74,963, with an upper level as high as $100,987. The latter source added that the pay depends on geography and tenure of different positions and bonuses can be as high as $7,096. It’s important to note that this range accounts for regional variance, so keep this in mind when considering different job offers, no matter where your journey takes you.
  • Value within organization: Along with job satisfaction, the average CNL seems to have a high value for the organization they work. The AACN website says that 97 percent of CNL employees apply their “knowledge and skills” to their work. Aside from being valuable to the individual, the position itself could also represent a strong move for individuals, as it can give them useful job market value and encourage others to employ them based on their successful time in this particular role.

In some ways, the CNL position can be seen as an intentionally transformative one, meant to help spearhead positive change for organizations. The job is still growing in popularity and may be lesser-known than others, but that’s also a reason to consider it, since it can be the kind of role care providers look to fill even more so in the coming years.

Although the benefits and value of the position are important to know in their own right, all of the above are contingent on whether or not you place in a CNL position. Fortunately, with the relatively new status of the CNL and the widely applicable skills involved, there are strong arguments for pursuing this position. Additionally, the skills and traits gained in a CNL education are necessary to stay valuable to health care entities in the future.

Having the vision to complete a CNL certification exam and find a job can begin with a program that teaches essential nursing skills. The CNL is a unique type of job, especially at the moment, because it requires both the core nursing degree and a high level of ambition for the future. Applicants can use an online Master of Science in Nursing to begin the process before continuing onto their next career milestone.

Recommended Readings:

What is a CNL?

Why is a clinical nurse leader an asset to any hospital?













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