Aim To explore the perceptions of early career nursing academics on leadership in academia. Background There is growing emphasis on leadership capacity building across all domains of nursing. However, there is limited evidence on leadership capacity in early career academics. This study tested an intervention to develop leadership capacity amongst early career nursing academics in two Australian universities. Methods A sequential mixed methods design, using online surveys and semi-structured interviews, was used to collect data. Results Twenty-three early career nursing academics participated. Most had experience of formal leadership roles and were aware of its importance to them as they developed their academic careers. Participants were able to discuss their own views of themselves as leaders; their perceptions of their own needs for leadership development, and ways in which they could seek to develop further as leaders. Conclusion There is a need to provide initial and ongoing opportunities for leadership development amongst nurse academics. These opportunities should be contextualised and recognise factors such as gender, and the effects of structural oppression. Implications for nursing management Nurse academics are involved in the preparation of the next generation of clinical leaders and it is imperative that they are able to articulate a clear view of leadership.