Background In recent years there has been a growth in leadership development frameworks in health for the existing workforce. There has also been a related abundance of leadership programmes developed specifically for qualified nurses. There is a groundswell of opinion that clinical leadership preparation needs to extend to preparatory programmes leading to registration as a nurse. To this end a doctoral research study has been completed that focused specifically on the identification and verification of the antecedents of clinical leadership (leadership and management) so they can shape the curriculum content and the best way to deliver the curriculum content as a curriculum thread. Objectives To conceptualise how the curriculum content, identified and verified empirically, can be structured within a curriculum thread and to contribute to the discussion on effective pedagogical approaches and educational strategies for learning and teaching of clinical leadership. Design A multi-method design was utilised in the research in Australia. Drawing on core principles in critical social theory, an integral curriculum thread is proposed for pre-registration nursing programmes that identifies the antecedents of clinical leadership; the core concepts, together with the continuum of enlightenment, empowerment, and emancipation. Conclusions The curriculum content, the effective pedagogical approaches and the educational strategies are supported theoretically and we believe this offers a design template for action and a way of thinking about this important aspect of preparatory nursing education. Moreover, we hope to have created a process contributing to a heighten sense of awareness in the nursing student (and other key stakeholders) of the what, how and when of clinical leadership for a novice registered nurse. The next stage is to further test through research the proposed integral curriculum thread.