Nursing Leadership Roles for DNP Graduates

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A nursing professor teaches an anatomy class.The bedrock of the nation’s health care system, nurses are vital to achieving positive health outcomes. And as the health care system evolves, the importance of leadership in nursing continues to grow. Effective nurse leadership is a significant factor in promoting safety, achieving financial goals, and strengthening the quality of care, as a 2021 Becker’s Hospital Review report notes. In short, nurse leadership is essential to advancing health care.

Nursing leadership can take many forms, and nurses who aspire to become leaders can pursue positions that best suit their talents and interests. The path to many roles in nursing leadership begins with earning a Doctor of Nursing Practice (DNP) degree. Equipped with the skills and expertise that a DNP provides, nurses can move into leadership positions that enable them to improve health care delivery, administration, and work environments.

Nurses who are considering enrolling in an online BSN to DNP program may want to first explore the skills needed for nursing leadership, the range of nursing leadership roles, and what working in those roles entail.

DNP Skills for Leadership Roles

The set of skills that nurses can acquire through a DNP program may help them succeed in nurse leadership roles in a variety of health care areas.

Nurse Leadership Skills

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing’s (AACN) core competencies for advanced-level nursing outline the key skills that nurse leaders need. Specific examples include:

  • Combining nursing knowledge with other disciplines to inform research, education, and practice
  • Contributing to health care policy development
  • Guiding care coordination across multiple health care systems
  • Leading and collaborating with teams of health care professionals to create care plans
  • Leading partnerships to improve population health
  • Promoting advocacy efforts based on principles of social justice, equity, inclusion, and diversity
  • Recommending strategies to improve the cost-effectiveness of health care
  • Using advanced scientific knowledge to aid in health care decision-making

Where Nurses Can Apply Their Leadership Skills

A 2019 report in American Nurse Journal grouped the leadership career opportunities for nurses with DNP degrees into the following categories:

  • DNP graduates can apply their unique skills in management and clinic practice by working in executive administrative roles in health care organizations.
  • Advanced practice nursing. A nurse who earns a DNP and who aspires to attain a leadership role in clinical care can work as a clinical nurse specialist, nurse anesthetist, nurse midwife, or nurse practitioner, depending on the other training they have.
  • Earning a DNP can prepare nurses to work in academia and train the next generation of nurses. Working in academia enables nurses to influence curricula and strengthen the quality of nursing education.
  • Combining their experience and expertise can enable nurses who earn a DNP to launch careers in health care policy, helping to address health care concerns from the local to the international level.

DNP Leadership Roles

Nurses who earn a DNP can develop qualities of nurse leadership that make them well-suited for a variety of career paths. The examples below demonstrate the wide range of leadership roles for nurses.

Chief Nursing Officer

The ANA Enterprise (the overarching organization of the American Nurses Association, the American Nurses Credentialing Center, and the American Nurses Foundation) explains that a chief nursing officer’s primary responsibility is to oversee a health care organization’s professional nursing practice. Accountable for an organization’s entire nursing operation, the chief nursing officer works closely with both nursing staff and management.

Chief nursing officers apply their leadership skills in a variety of areas such as developing strategy, forecasting financial information, implementing nursing initiatives, and strengthening both patient and staff engagement.

Nursing Professor

Professors of nursing teach courses in university nursing programs. (Clinical nurse educators work in a similar role teaching in clinical settings such as a hospital.) Nursing professors at a university may also conduct research.

The leadership skills of nursing professors are crucial in areas such as assessing and evaluating curricula, managing shortages in nursing school faculty, and serving as role models for nursing students, according to a 2020 Nurse Education in Practice report.

Health Care Lobbyist

The combination of a background in nursing and an advanced degree can lead to success as a health care lobbyist, according to Indeed. Examples of a health care lobbyist’s responsibilities include researching and writing policy proposals, communicating with stakeholders regarding health care policy, and working to enact health care legislation.

Leadership skills are essential to health care lobbyists when they’re called upon to organize lobbying efforts across multiple groups, inform lawmakers about issues in health care, or develop ideas for improving health care policy.

DNPs in Executive Leadership

Earning a DNP also can enable nurses to pursue roles in executive leadership. For example, according to the AACN, DNP-educated nurses in executive positions can be responsible for the operations of a department within a health care organization or lead an entire health care organization.

Executive leadership roles for nurses may entail responsibilities such as improving the patient experience, strengthening population health, and reducing the cost of health care, the American Organization for Nursing Leadership (AONL) reports. Health care organizations also rely on nurses in executive leadership to establish working relationships with academic institutions (regarding nurse staffing needs, for example) and coordinate with health care organizations’ governing boards.

According to the AONL, critical nurse executive competencies can be categorized in the following areas:

  • Communication and relationship building, including skills in communication management and community involvement
  • Knowledge of the health care environment, including clinical practice, health care policy, and patient safety
  • Leadership, including expertise in critical analysis, succession planning, and change management
  • Professionalism, including accountability, advocacy, and ethics
  • Business skills, such as financial management, human resources, and information technology

Strengthening Health Care Through DNP Leadership

Nurses who earn a DNP can choose from a variety of nursing leadership roles that position them to help strengthen our health care system. With the expertise that a DNP program provides, nurses can pursue the particular leadership opportunities that align with their career ambitions.

Nurses who are interested in moving into positions of leadership should explore Regis College’s online BSN to Doctor of Nursing Practice program to learn more about how the program can help them pursue their professional goals. Take your next step on the path to nursing leadership with Regis College today. 

Recommended Readings

Careers in Care Leadership: What Is a Nurse Mentor?

Ethics in Nursing: What Every Nurse Should Know

Why Get a DNP Degree? Key Benefits and Outcomes


American Association of Colleges of Nursing, DNP Education

American Association of Colleges of Nursing, The Essentials: Core Competencies for Professional Nursing Education

American Nurse Journal, “DNPs: Healthcare Change Agents”

American Organization for Nursing Leadership, Nurse Executive Competencies

ANA Enterprise, Chief Nursing Officer/Chief Nurse Executive

Becker’s Hospital Review, “The Importance of Recognizing Nurse Leaders”

Indeed, “How to Become a Nurse Educator in 7 Steps (With FAQs)”

Indeed, “Learn About Becoming a Healthcare Lobbyist”

Nurse Education in Practice, “The Challenges of COVID-19 in Nursing Education: The Time for Faculty Leadership Training Is Now”