Clinical nurse leaders (CNLs) and clinical nurse specialists (CNSs) have titles that sound very similar, yet they are two very different medical professionals. They both require a Master’s of Nursing degree, additional specialized training and certification. They also both have advanced nursing training that enables them to have leadership roles. While they often work together, they have separate roles in a healthcare setting and their communities. Beyond these similarities, there are several differences between these two highly qualified healthcare professionals. Here are a few of the many differences.

Roles in the Healthcare Setting

The clinical nurse specialist and clinical nurse leader both have important roles in regards to patient care. The clinical nurse leader, much as the name implies, leads and supervises other nurses in providing direct care to patients. The CNL is often in charge of the entire nursing staff or team and is the one that delegates duties to the nurses. The CNS is a clinical professional with expertise in a specific area and may offer expertise and mentor nurses. If there is a specific medical issue with a patient, the clinical nurse specialist is often the one the nurses consult with. While they both provide care in many different healthcare settings, their roles are independent of each other.

Scope of their Jobs

Both the clinical nurse specialist and the clinical nurse leader provide patient care on some level or capacity. The CNL generally bases the care on quality improvement methods and evidence-based practice. The CNS generally provides care through advanced nursing practices often based on research. The CNS spends a great deal of time generating and utilizing research and using the research to turn evidence-based research into general practice. The clinical nurse leader may consult with the clinical nurse specialist in a particularly difficult case.


Clinical nurse leaders and clinical nurse specialists are both required to have a nursing degree and advanced training. The CNL will complete a critical nursing leader curriculum that focuses on nursing leadership, health promotion, providing and managing care, health care technology, and clinical outcomes management. The CNL obtains certification through the Commission on Nurse Certification. The clinical nurse specialist completes an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) courses but also focuses on specific areas of nursing. The CNS can obtain certification through a few different agencies and can obtain certification in each area of specialization he or she chooses.


Wages are another area where clinical nurse leaders and clinical nurse specialists differ. Wage potential for each occupation can vary from one reporting agency to the next. According to PayScale, the average salary for clinical nurse specialists was $88,228 as of August 2019. PayScale reported the average salary for clinical nurse leaders at $77,826 in July 2019. Nurse Journal indicates that clinical nurse leaders earn an average annual wage of $84,000 while reports that clinical nurse specialist wages can range from $65,000 to more than $110,000 annually. The one certain thing is that both careers offer excellent wages.

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Whether an individual chooses to become a clinical nurse leader or a clinical nurse specialist, career opportunities and job growth should be very good for both. While there are differences between a clinical nurse leader and a clinical nurse specialist, both provide very important services to the healthcare industry and play a vital role in patient care.