Background: Although greater emphasis has been placed on leadership skills in nursing management in the last decade, the concepts are often confused or used erroneously by Iranian nurses. At the same time we have observed that wide variations in nurses' clinical practice appeared to be related to the presence or absence of leadership skills among senior nurses. Aim: To begin to identify the concepts used for expressing leadership in nursing within the Iranian cultural context. Methods: A qualitative approach was adopted using content analysis of semi-structured interviews carried out with 10 nurse managers from hospitals in Teheran. The data were analysed using the constant comparative method. Findings: Fifty-five primary codes were identified from the respondents' experiences and from these three main themes were abstracted for describing the leadership concept. These were 'personality traits', 'being a model', and 'being a spiritual guide for the nursing profession'. Conclusion: Implementing the culture of patient safety and dignity needs leadership. From Iranian nurse managers' perspectives a leader as a spiritual guide should empower nurses spiritually; it means he/she has a vision for nursing; has clear and explicit objectives; and has a commitment to nursing. Nurses who are confident about the underlying concepts of leadership in their culture can help to adapt nursing to an ever-changing healthcare environment.