What’s the Difference Between a Nurse Manager & Nurse Leader?

The terms “leader” and “manager” are too often used interchangeably, but most of us understand instinctively that they are not the same thing. Not every nurse manager is a good leader, and those who demonstrate strong nursing leadership are not necessarily managers.

What is a Nurse Manager?

A nurse manager holds an assigned position within the hierarchy of an organization. She or he has decision-making powers and control over certain processes, and is expected to carry out specific duties.

What is a Nurse Leader?

A leader, on the other hand, may or may not have recognized authority within the organization. In many cases, the “power” held by a leader comes from the ability to influence others, through effective communication and interpersonal skills.

Nurses can demonstrate leadership skills at any level of experience and in any stage of their careers. You don’t have to supervise or manage anyone to position yourself as a leader. When you work productively within your unit and express enthusiasm for unit goals, you are helping to direct the group in ways that make it function cohesively – and you are sowing the seeds of leadership.

Another way to demonstrate leadership is to become a mentor. Even if your hospital doesn’t have a formal mentoring program, you have many opportunities to share knowledge and useful insights. When you make time to offer support and friendship to a less experienced nurse, you’re helping to promote competent nursing practice by influencing the quality of care that nurse is able to provide.

Anytime you speak up about a problem, you demonstrate leadership skills – particularly if you are advocating for patient safety or high-quality care. You don’t have to be a manager to assert the need for changes. As you go about your daily duties, numerous opportunities exist for you to question the validity of current nursing practices in your hospital, and to use evidence to make the care you provide more effective. As a nurse, you should continually ask the question, What is the evidence that this intervention is the best possible practice? Some hospitals actively recruit staff nurses to sit on committees or provide input regarding the policies that affect patient care. If your hospital uses such a system of shared governance, you should get involved.

Benefits of developing leadership skills

Nurse managers can manage more effectively if they possess a wider range of leadership skills – including the ability to motivate others. A manager who makes every decision without input and rules with a heavy hand may come across as a dictator who does not value the experience of others. This type of manager often cannot build an effective team.

Both leaders and managers rely on critical thinking skills and the ability to envision a positive future. Ideally, nurse leaders have risen to the management or executive level because they’ve had the ambition to advance their careers and leave the bedside. The desire to for self-improvement and a higher level of excellence is an intrinsic trait for leaders.

There is a wealth of available information about both leadership skills and management styles. You can tap into it by taking courses or reading widely about the topics. Formal nursing education is another good option – if you have an associate’s degree in nursing, consider going for a BSN. If you already have a college degree, consider going for an MSN.

American Sentinel’s online MSN, Management and Organizational Leadership degree is designed for experienced nurse professional who seek to develop both management and leadership skills. Through case studies and hands-on course work, nurses examine the various human resource challenges facing an organization as well as the dynamic nature of the strategic planning and management processes. Courses cover long-range planning, including budgeting, analysis and reporting.

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