The role of nurses today is evolving. Where the nurses of yesterday spent much of their time assisting doctors to improve patient care, today’s nurses take a leading role in caring for patients and improving healthcare outcomes.

Nowhere is that truer than in the roles of nurse practitioner and clinical nurse leader.

The question is: which role is right for you? Keep reading to find out.

What is a Nurse Practitioner?

A nurse practitioner (NP) is a highly versatile role with many opportunities for advancement–and NPs are quickly becoming the healthcare professional of choice, as 870 million Americans visit NPs every year for medical care.

NPs can do many of the things physicians do, including prescribe medication, diagnose illnesses, provide treatment, and examine patients, which is why NPs have full practice authority in 20 states (meaning that they do not have to work under the supervision of a doctor).

Even in states where NPs don’t have full practice authority, they still have greater authority and freedom to practice medicine than traditional registered nurses (RNs).

What is a Clinical Nurse Leader (CNL)?

Then, there are clinical nurse leaders (CNLs).

A CNL is an experienced MSN-prepared nurse that functions in a dual role as a bedside nurse and as a leader making substantive advances in health care quality for patients.

Because of this, there are many roles available to CNLs, from clinician to outcomes manager to client advocate to systems analyst. The world is your oyster as a CNL if you’re ready to take on the responsibility.

What’s the Difference?

Now that you’ve got the basics down, let’s talk about the difference between a nurse practitioner and a clinical nurse leader.

While the two are both viewed as leadership roles by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, they’re considered complementary but very different careers.

Both options are available to RNs who have completed training for a Masters of Nursing Science (MSN) program or, for NPs, a Doctor of Nursing Practice program. From there, the paths diverge.

RNs who want to become NPs will go on to receive specialist training in one of many nurse practitioner specializations, while those training to become CNLs will receive clinical training and instruction in administrative aspects of nursing.

Let’s take a closer look at the difference between the two.

Typical Duties

One of the big differences between an NP and a CNL has to do with their day-to-day duties.

A nurse practitioner will offer many of the same health care services that a physician could provide. As such, their day-to-day tasks include things like:

  • Acting as a primary healthcare provider
  • Assessing, diagnosing, and treating acute and chronic illnesses or injuries
  • Prescribing medications
  • Taking health histories
  • Writing referrals for specialized care

A clinical nurse leader, by contrast, is going to spend more of their time looking at the bigger picture for several patients or nurses. As such, their day-to-day tasks include things like:

  • Monitor unit-wide patient treatment plans and outcomes
  • Implement or modify nursing practices to improve patient outcomes
  • Teach or advise nurses on these new methods
  • Keep pace with the latest nursing research, technologies, and best practices

The easiest way to conceptualize the difference is to think of an NP as a physician running a private practice, whereas a CNL runs an entire nursing unit, acting as a supervisor to other nurses on their unit or ward.

Work Setting

Because of this, the work settings for an NP and a CNL are different.

Nurse practitioners typically work in medical settings that call on them to utilize their advanced training and ability to work without a doctor’s supervision. This includes places like a private practice, a long-term care facility, or ambulatory clinics.

Because a clinical nurse leader can supervise other nurses, they tend to work in a broader range of settings.

Their primary area of practice usually includes tertiary care facilities like hospitals and large medical clinics, but they can also work in emergency healthcare environments like rehab centers, long-term geriatric care facilities, home health practices, or ambulatory care facilities.


Because of their varying roles (which will consequently result in different working hours and work settings), the salaries for NPs and CNLs are different, though they are more comparable to each other than a registered nurse salary.

Nurse practitioners earn a median salary of $103,880 per year, with the highest earners bringing in $145,630.

Surprisingly, the role of clinical nurse leader earns slightly less, with the median average wage at around $84,000. Keep in mind, however, that this is a comparatively new role, and that the exact duties of a CNL are still in flux more than an NP.

In addition, because CNLs are being asked to develop new health policies to improve patient outcomes, there is an expectation that their salaries will rise in accordance with their success.

Successful Personalities

The respective roles of CNLs and NPs do require different personalities, though the two are comparable. The biggest difference has to do with your particular ability to work independently.

Nurse practitioners often work in a private practice with little or no supervision, which means that above all they must be meticulously organized and able to successfully work independently. As with all nurses, they also need to be able to interact well with patients, requiring great listening skills and empathy.

Clinical nurse leaders place more emphasis on the leadership role. Because of this, the most successful CNLs are analytical thinkers who can identify trends from patient data, spot key emerging trends in research, and identify new techniques and technologies could most benefit their unit.

As such, they need a great attention to detail, excellent listening skills, and an ability to balance individual patient outcomes with the larger picture of the whole unit.

Ready to Become a CNL?

Ready to take control of your role in healthcare and start your training?

Whether you decide to become a nurse practitioner or a clinical nurse leader, you can make a real difference in patients’ lives.

If you decide that becoming a CNL is right for you, we’re here to help with educational resources, tools to help you get your career started, and a job search tool so you can kick off your career.

Wherever you are in the process of becoming a CNL, we’ve got your back.