Group of surgeons at work operating in surgical theatre. Resuscitation medicine team wearing protective masks holding steel medical tools saving patient. Surgery and emergency concept

The role of a Clinical Nurse Leader was developed in 2003 by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN). Its basic functions are to further develop the healthcare environment, coordinate and share patient care plans, and provide information and guidance to the nursing staff on a microsystem level. In general surgical units, these basic functions expand further to ensure that patients receive appropriate care.


By taking advantage of the unique skills of a CNL, general surgical units can make changes that enhance the overall satisfaction of the patients.

  • Educate, coach and assist an interdisciplinary team to maximize the efficiency of environmental, technological and human resources.
  • Collaborate with other health care professionals to plan and evaluate patient care outcomes.
  • Advocate for the patient, as well as improvements in the professional health care environment.
  • Monitor the continuum of the patient’s transition in the surgical unit.
  • Organize and prioritize the work of the patient care team.


The average salary for a CNL working in the general surgical unit is $84,500 annually. The range is $57,000 to $112,000. (Note: Salary data collected as of 2016.)


Although specific requirements may vary depending on the facility, a Clinical Nurse Leader is an advanced generalist educated at a master’s degree level; they are required to have an MSN from a program accredited by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN). They may also require a nursing license specific to the state in which they plan to operate and pass a CNL certification exam.


General surgical units are composed of an operating room, a pre-op area and a post-op area. CNLs function as the lead nurse throughout all three. Some shifts can occasionally exceed 12 hours. Typically, most shifts are eight to 12 hours.


Developing a knowledge base of surgical and recovery procedures will provide the foundation CNLs need to analyze existing protocols and adjust them in ways that improve patient outcomes.

Leading and coordinating the surgical nursing staff requires a high degree of organizational, managerial and analytical skills. Some of the metrics that can impact patient outcomes include increasing staff responsiveness and compliance, and infection control.


Even more than other specialties, CNLs working in the OR during surgeries may have to spend long shifts on their feet.