The Role of the CNL

As a Clinical Nurse Leader, I get a lot of questions about what exactly a CNL does and has to offer to a healthcare setting. The Clinical Nurse Leader (CNL) is a nursing leadership role that was first introduced in 2003 (AACN, 2013). The CNL is a valuable leader who can contribute his or her leadership skills at the point of care to benefit patients and health care organizations. CNLs are master’s educated registered nurses (RNs) who work to maximize patient care outcomes at the point of care in any setting where healthcare is delivered (AACN, 2013).
How is a CNL's education different than a  a BSN degree?
CNLs have a master’s level education that prepares them to be experts in leadership and evidence-based practice (Thompson & Lutham, 2007). While BSN programs focus on direct patient assessment and care, a CNL’s education goes beyond that with an additional focus on leadership. Throughout their education, CNLs practice clinical problem solving and focus on maximizing quality of care across the care continuum. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) delineates this education in the CNL competencies, which outline the curriculum foci (AACN, 2013). Some examples include systems leadership, quality improvement, translating scholarship to practice, and advocacy (AACN, 2013).
How is a CNL different from other master’s prepared nurses?
Unlike master’s prepared RNs who may have specialized in nursing administration or clinical nurse education, a CNL’s contribution begins at the bedside. CNLs work with bedside nurses as a partner and source of support. CNLs translate evidence-based practice to action, coordinate with the interdisciplinary team, and ensure safe, individualized plans of patient care, especially during transitions of care (Wienand et al., 2015). In these ways, the CNL is a safety net for patients and an impetus for evidence-based change within a microsystem.
What kind of career opportunities are available for CNLs?
Although it is a fairly new role, the CNL position is increasing in popularity. As the role gains popularity and recognition for its value, more hospitals are creating CNL positions. According to a survey of the current job market, a nurse working as a CNL can expect a median salary of about $82,000 with the potential to earn upwards of $100,000 (Graduate Nursing Edu, 2018). The CNL role is typically fulfilled by a nurse who has at least a year of bedside nursing experience. CNLs may be hired onto different shifts depending on the needs of the hiring organization. According to Graduate Nursing Edu (2018), the day-to-day workflow of the CNL involves the following duties:
- Facilitating collaborative care for patients
- Providing mentoring to nursing staff
- Establishing and overseeing a healthy working environment
- Collecting and evaluating patient risks, outcomes, and care plans
- Coordinating direct care activities among nursing staff
- Providing lateral integration of healthcare services
How does a CNL certification help outside of the direct CNL role?
Even if your local hospitals or community healthcare providers don't currently have positions available for the CNL role, a CNL certification is useful for any bedside nurse. The CNL education empowers nurses with the leadership skills necessary to being a positive force for systemic change. The CNL curriculum does this by providing education on how to identify a system's needs for improvement and successfully implement evidence-based quality improvement projects. Having a CNL certification may also give you a competitive edge when applying to RN positions, as you will be able to articulate your background in clinical leadership. If you're interested in becoming a CNL, follow this link to see what opportunities may be in your area.

AACN. (2013). Competencies and curricular expectations for Clinical Nurse Leader education and practice [PDF]. American Association of Colleges of Nursing.
Graduate Nursing Edu. (2018). Clinical Nurse Leader (CNL) job description. Retrieved from
Thompson, P., & Lutham, K. (2007). Clinical Nurse Leader and Clinical Nurse Specialist role delineation in the acute care setting. Journal of Nursing Administration, 37(10), 429-431.Wienand, D. M., Shah, P. R., Hatcher, B., Jordan, A., Grenier, J. M., Cooper, A. M., . . . Mayer, K. (2015). Implementing the Clinical Nurse Leader role: A care model centered on innovation, efficiency, and excellence. Nurse Leader, 13(4), 78-85. doi:10.1016/j.mnl.2014.11.011