Your Guide to Leadership Careers in Nursing with an Online MSN, DNP, or Other Degree in Organizational Leadership

Written by Scott Wilson

nursing leadership careers

Only a nurse can truly understand how tough it is to lead other nurses. As the backbone of the American healthcare system, nurses have some of the widest-ranging responsibilities, some of the deepest expertise, and some of the most valuable experience in any organization they are a part of.

That makes nurses justifiably proud of their role and independent by nature.

A medical system that has been stretched and pushed to the breaking point over the past years of the COVID-19 pandemic has also put many of those nurses on edge. Short-staffed, low on resources, and pulling all kinds of overtime on caffeine and a prayer, it’s understandable if nerves are a little frayed.

According to Staffing Industry Analysts, the number of travel nurses in the U.S. doubled during the pandemic. That’s a lot of new faces on the average ward.

Put it all together, and it’s a significant leadership challenge in terms of staffing, communication, and training.

Organizational leadership is a field of study and practice that has a lot to say about meeting those challenges. With an empathetic, interpersonal, motivational approach, it is closely aligned with traditional nursing values. And with the big picture vision and forward-thinking strategic insights it offers, it’s the ideal skill for nurse leaders to acquire to handle the decades to come.

Nursing Organization Leaders Are Well-placed To Take Advantage of Organizational Leadership Training

staff meetingLeadership is a quality and value that is tied to nursing in ways you won’t find in any other role in healthcare. And that’s because of the special role that nurses play in patient care.

It stems back almost directly to a 1999 report from the Institute of Medicine. An in-depth study of the quality of American healthcare, To Err is Human: Building a Safer Health System identified preventable medical errors leading to the death of between 44,000 and 100,000 Americans annually.

Complexity was the problem. There were too many specialties, too many treatments, and too little coordination between them. No one was stepping up to manage the whole case.

As the staff with the most patient contact, the strongest personal bonds, and the best overall perspective of what was happening with patients, nurses are in the best spot to catch and correct errors before they happen.

Nursing leaders influence, inspire, and motivate the healthcare workforce both within and outside of nursing ranks.

The solution was staring the field of medicine in the face the whole time: empowering nurse leaders to help coordinate and manage patient care. There’s even a newly created and specific professional role, the CNL, or Clinical Nurse Leader, designed to take on that responsibility.

Organizational Leadership Training Is Widely Available in Nursing Degrees

Through the CNL and other programs, nursing leadership is a subject of strong efforts in the healthcare education world already.

The field of nursing has a unique alignment with the values and precepts of organizational leadership.

The practice of nursing already emphasizes many of the soft skills that are key in organizational leadership studies:

Every nurse has learned that approach and those methods in patient care. So you’ll have no trouble finding an education in organizational leadership that is lined right up with the needs and interests of nursing organizations.

Advanced Nursing Degree Options With Organizational Leadership Training

Healthcare is a field where higher education is a must. It’s also extremely specialized. You can’t get a license to practice without a rigorous and intensive college degree behind you that includes:

Although you can become a nurse with only an associate or a bachelor’s degree, by the time you get to a level where leadership is a factor, you will be looking entirely at advanced level degrees. The Master of Science in Nursing (MSN) is the gold standard today for senior nursing leaders and Advanced Practice Registered Nurses (APRNs).

Don’t get too comfortable with that MSN; there’s a push in the APRN world to make doctoral degrees the standard for licensure in the coming years.

So there are plenty of nursing schools today that offer programs that both give you the advanced practical studies needed for licensure, along with specializations in leadership. You will find MSN options like:

But with the new emphasis on even more advanced studies in nursing, many future leaders are opting for doctoral programs. These come in two basic flavors:

DNP (Doctor of Nurse Practice)

A practice-oriented degree focused on advanced nursing and leadership skills for candidates heading for hands-on healthcare work.

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy) in Nursing

A more academic degree designed to equip nurses for roles in research and teaching.

Both are increasingly available with specialized leadership focus areas, such as:

Almost all modern leadership studies – including those in nursing leadership – draw strongly on organizational leadership concepts and theories in their courses.

These programs mirror the general design of doctoral nursing studies, which come in formats to accommodate both nurses who have already earned an MSN (MSN to DNP programs) or those who are aiming at a DNP directly after getting a bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN to DNP).

Dual Degrees Offer Focused Training in Both Nursing and Organizational Leadership

nurses online trainingBut specialized MSN/DNP programs aren’t your only option to combine organizational leadership studies with advanced nursing training. For the truly hardcore, dual degree options give you a full-bore approach to both fields with no compromises or cut-outs.

An MSN/MSOL (Master of Science in Organizational Leadership) or DNP/MAOL (Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership) from a school that offers both degrees is a huge commitment. But it’s a way to ensure that you will absorb a fully focused course of study in advanced nursing while getting a complete perspective in OL at the same time.

An Organizational Leadership Certificate Delivers Key Concepts for Nurse Leaders

nurse taking notesThere are plenty of nurses headed for leadership roles who either have already earned the highest level degrees in the field, or don’t have the time or money to devote to a full-on return to college.

But advanced training in organizational leadership is still on the table through the many certificate programs offered by some of the same universities.

Organizational leadership certificates distill leadership training down into only a handful of courses, and last only for a few months or a year at most.

There are few electives available, but all the core concepts and techniques of OL are built in.

These certificates are available at both the graduate (for nurses with only a bachelor’s degree) and post-graduate (for nurses who already hold an MSN or DNP) level. Each offers coursework designed to build on your current level of knowledge and skill. In many cases, they offer credits that you can later apply to a full degree if you decide to continue.

Although there are many generic OL certificate programs that offer business or general organizational leadership training, there are also many that are designed specifically for nursing leadership. They include:

Finding Nursing Schools With the Best Organizational Leadership Training

nursing leadership studentIt’s a practical necessity for nurses pursuing a higher education to get it at nursing schools. Even though organizational leadership training comes in many flavors, and is often thought of as a business school tool, a B-school OL degree isn’t going to fit the bill since it won’t meet licensure qualifications or teach any practical nursing skills.

In fact, your primary considerations in choosing an MSN or DNP program are probably going to revolve around the quality of the nursing education they offer.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t also evaluate the strengths of a school’s organizational leadership training. And you’ll look at many of the same qualities in both areas:

If you happen to be pursuing a dual degree program or looking at certificates that aren’t offered by nursing schools, the same kind of specialty accreditation applies in the business world. For B-school OL programs, that comes from one of these three agencies:

  • IACBE (International Accreditation Council for Business Education)
  • AACSB (Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business)
  • ACBSP (Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs)

Finally, CAHME, the Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Management Education, also offers accreditation of MSN programs offering executive and leadership training specialties. For high-level healthcare management jobs, this might be an even better indicator than specialty business accreditation.

Online Degree Programs Deliver Flexibility Along With Excellent Leadership Training

nurse working from home onlineIf you’re tired of being stacked on a ward with patients and staff around you all the time, there’s some good news in nursing and leadership education: many, if not most, programs can be taken at least partly online.

These remote studies only cover the classroom portion of your training—clinical components will still be handled in-person. Almost all the actual organizational leadership classes will be online, however. For advanced degrees that focus entirely on nursing management and leadership, it can be possible to complete the entire program without ever setting foot on campus.

Some advanced nursing leadership programs even come with virtual residencies.

That opens up all kinds of flexibility in your higher education efforts. Study between shifts in the cafeteria; stream lectures on your day off. You’ll still get complete connection to other students and faculty through online chat, message boards, and video conferencing. And you won’t have to relocate or conform to any arbitrary daily schedule to do it.

What Are the Costs of Organizational Leadership Degrees for Nurses?

Online programs can cut some of your costs and allow you to study organizational leadership while you’re still on the job, but a nursing education isn’t cheap. While the total costs of your training will depend on where you are starting from, you can calculate what your MSN or DNP alone will run you based on data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).

As of 2021, the typical annual cost of tuition and fees for graduate programs in the U.S. was $12,394 for public institutions and $26,621 for private universities. You can multiply that by the length of your degree—from one to two years for an MSN, depending on your starting point, to between two and four years for a DNP.

Building Organizational Leadership Studies Into a Nursing Curriculum

nurse using laptopYour course curriculum will vary depending on your exact degree program, or whether you choose a certificate or dual degree path versus a concentration option.

In general, most organizational leadership education covers areas and concepts such as:

Conflict and Change Management

All organizations must deal with a diversity of opinions and viewpoints. Good leaders learn how to listen and respect each of those perspectives before tying them together in innovative ways to make the hard work of change easier.

Organizational Analysis and Informatics

Diving into the hard work of learning what your staff can do and how they work together is a key part of good leadership. You’ll be taught how to use informatics tools and techniques of analysis to help you get a solid grounding in evaluating the potential of your team.

Leadership Theory

You will get a historical perspective on what it means to be a leader and engage with case studies of how organizational leadership has been demonstrated in action. This will be tied together with the distilled lessons and principles that inform OL theory and practice today.

Diversity and Culture

Nursing already comes with a lot of lessons about cultural respect and the nature of a diverse workforce and patient base. Organizational culture is its own special kind of community, one that leaders have to learn how to build as well as respect. These courses give you the tools to make it happen.

nurse leader talking to team

OL concentrations in MSN and DNP programs throw in some more specific nursing-oriented coursework. This offers specific tools and information for dealing with leadership in the healthcare context.

Nursing Management

There are many details of the healthcare environment that are well outside the typical bounds of management training. Nurses deal with strong emotional and cultural issues, and nurse managers need special training to help their staff deal with those difficult problems.

Healthcare Quality Improvement Processes

Continuous improvement in medicine is a watchword. Much of the job of a nursing leader is to constantly inspire and propel their staff to higher standards, using processes and data to make it happen. This coursework teaches you how QIPs can integrate with and be improved through OL techniques.

Evidence-based Leadership

Evidence-based medicine is nothing new for most nurses; evidence-based organizational leadership practice is a natural fit. These classes will offer research and analytical methods and hone your analytical skills to bring scientific problem-solving to problems of leadership as well as nursing care.


Ethics and obligations in the nursing community are already well-taught and strongly emphasized. Leadership relies even more on ethical decision-making. You’ll study how to motivate and inspire people through empathetic yet rigorous behavior and standards.

For most nursing degrees with OL specializations, this all comes along with the usual range of clinical, social, and scientific coursework required of licensed nurses.

You can also expect to spend time out in the field, gaining valuable experience in both observing and conducting nursing and leadership practice. This is generally a part of meeting the larger requirements for licensure, but it’s also good real-world experience in how organizations and leadership work.

What Kind of Nursing Jobs Can You Get With Organizational Leadership Training?

surgeryWith a wide range of specializations available across the healthcare spectrum, nursing already offers you a tremendous variety of careers to pursue. Whether you enjoy working in neonatal intensive care or forging new breakthrough treatments as a nurse researcher, you will have an all-purpose degree to make a difference any way you choose.

The field of nursing is grounded in interpersonal care and a holistic approach to treatment, though. So no matter what role you choose, you can count on getting to know patients as individuals and helping to ease their pain or heal them.

A Nursing Job Designed for Organizational Leadership: The Clinical Nurse Leader

medical staff meetingIf there is a nursing role that organizational leadership training fits to a T, it is that of the Clinical Nurse Leader.

The position of CNL was specifically created to deal with the kind of coordination and complexity problems identified in To Err is Human. The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) created the definition of the CNL to improve patient care through:

  • Mentorship
  • Collaboration
  • Coordination
  • Integration

That’s practically a laundry list of essential organizational leadership techniques.

CNLs can function as clinicians, client advocates, educators, systems analysts, and team managers in a wide range of nursing specialties. A master’s degree is required and AACN certification as CNL requires graduating from an eligible accredited CNL program as well as passing an examination.

Eligible CNL programs aren’t always explicitly identified as training organizational leadership, but they almost always include the same coursework, along with more specific patient safety and support training.

Organizational leadership offers you a deeper well of knowledge to draw from than just your basic nursing training. Instead of making everything happen yourself, a leadership role gives you a larger team with bigger goals to realize. And it can take you beyond nursing, into the highest levels of healthcare management.

American healthcare is a growing industry. An aging patient population and a constant stream of new treatments and therapies ensure increasing demand for well-trained nurses. Those positions are already short-staffed; nurses entering the workforce today can expect strong demand for their talents for their entire future career.

Respectable Salaries Come to Nursing Professionals in Leadership Jobs

nursing leadership salaryStrong demand fuels high salaries. For registered nurses in general, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) notched the average salary in 2021 at $77,600.

Advanced practice registered nurses, such as Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners pulled down $123,780 on average, as you would expect with their higher qualifications and responsibilities.

But average is not what you sign up for when you study organizational leadership in nursing. Good nurse leaders are even more rare and more in-demand than nurses in general. And their salaries reflect it.

For RNs in the top ten percent, with the right training and leadership skills to take charge, annual salaries come in above $120,250. Among APRNs, that top ten percent make over $200,540 per year.

And many nurses with leadership potential take on positions in hospitals, major insurance companies, and other healthcare organizations that are even higher up the ladder. Medical and health services managers earned a median salary of $101,340 in 2021. Those in the top ten percent earned more than $205,620.

With a projected growth rate of nearly 30 percent over the next decade, that kind of job is definitely in the cards if you get the right education. A nursing degree with organizational leadership specialization is the perfect way to start.

2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Medical and Health Services Managers, Registered Nurses and Nurse Anesthetists, Nurse Midwives, and Nurse Practitioners reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed December 2022.