What Leadership Pathways Are Available To Nurses?


Depending on your interests, aptitude and passion as a nurse, you may wonder what leadership pathways are available to you. Well, many different types of nursing leaders exist, which is why it’s an exciting profession. Some nurse leaders focus primarily on management tasks, while others use clinical expertise to help expand services in a hospital or community. Hospital administrators, nursing directors and unit managers have different roles and responsibilities.

So, if you’re interested in becoming a leader, you have opportunities to advance into a supervisory role and obtain the required qualifications. One of the first places to start is exploring your educational options. For instance, learn about a DNP executive leadership program, such as the one offered by Baylor University. As you do, remember that when you decide on your pathway, you want a top-accredited university that’s well-regarded in the industry.

Let’s dive in and explore some of the different leadership pathways available to nurses with experience and the education available to them.

Understanding the different leadership roles

Many nurses aspire to become hospital administrators, but other opportunities also exist. As a result, understanding the differences between various leadership roles and titles is essential. Knowing the difference will help you decide which position is best for you and your career goals. The following are a few of the primary leadership roles in healthcare.


Administrators oversee the hospital’s daily operations, such as finances and personnel. So, they’re responsible for ensuring a hospital runs smoothly and meets the organization’s goals. Due to their duties’ nature, administrators focus primarily on long-term goals and policies rather than day-to-day operations. For instance, administrators ensure a hospital is appropriately staffed. As an administrator, you would be responsible for helping to manage the budget for nursing services. That includes activities such as recruiting, hiring and talent management. You may also oversee licensing, quality improvement and risk management.

Nursing director

Nursing directors oversee patient care delivery. Moreover, they have direct supervision over many nurses and other staff members. Directors may manage a specific hospital area, such as a cardiology wing or emergency room. Alternatively, they may oversee all of the nursing services at a hospital. They’re also responsible for managing the daily operations of a nursing department. As a result, they handle patient care delivery and direct supervision of nurses and other staff members. So, you may be responsible for scheduling and ensuring each unit has the right number of nurses. The director is also responsible for monitoring the budget for nursing services and making adjustments as needed.

Unit manager

You focus mainly on the unit’s day-to-day operations as a unit manager. For instance, it includes nursing care, staffing and managing patient flow. Unit managers are like directors, but they oversee a single unit, such as an emergency room, pediatric ward or surgery suite. Some units may handle both surgical and medical patients. Managing a unit’s daily operations includes management, conducting performance evaluations and scheduling. You may also monitor the budget for nursing services and make adjustments as needed. Directors or nursing administrators often supervise unit managers.

Chief nursing officer (CNO) or vice president of nursing services (VNS)

Chief nursing officers or vice presidents of nursing services are the highest-ranking nursing administrators and typically oversee all the nursing departments at a hospital. This includes hiring, retention of employees and managing the budget for all nursing services. They may or may not have direct oversight of nursing directors and unit managers. This role includes a lot of responsibility, as do the other leadership roles. Like the others, they’re responsible for ensuring that nurses deliver the best care possible, which is an essential piece of the puzzle for all nursing leadership roles. Ultimately, they all seek to provide high-quality patient care.

Nurse practitioner (NP) or clinical nurse specialist (CNS)

As with almost every industry, there’s also a shift in healthcare. In other words, more and more nurses are responsible for overseeing patient care, much like primary doctors. As a result, nurse practitioners’ roles are expanding in hospitals, clinics and large medical centers. These specialized nurses provide direct patient care or consult with other nurses to help improve care. However, it goes a step further because they’re responsible for patients’ overall health and wellness. These nursing specialists lead teams that may specialize in a specific population, such as children, geriatric patients or patients with a particular medical diagnosis.

Consultant and expert witness

Experts and consultants help hospitals improve care and meet compliance standards. So, they may provide recommendations for improving staff training or handling specific types of patients. In this role, you may work for a company that contracts with hospitals to enhance the quality of care. You may also work for an insurance company. As a result, you would audit hospitals and evaluate patient records to determine the level of reimbursement. Also, as an expert witness or consultant, you would be responsible for reviewing patient records, conducting staff interviews and making recommendations for improving patient care. You may also be responsible for testifying in court or providing statements to the media.

No better time than the present

If you want to advance in your career, pursuing a nursing leadership role is an excellent idea. Moreover, whether you aspire to be an administrator or a unit manager, many leadership pathways exist. It’s just a matter of determining which path you want to take in your career journey. Advancement into a supervisory role is a great way to gain management experience and build a successful nursing career. Pursuing an advanced degree is another way to move your career forward. So, if you’re passionate about improving patient care and contributing to your organization’s success, the right leadership role is out there for you.