The purpose of this research was to explore ICU nurses' perceptions of nursing leadership in the adult intensive care unit (ICU). The nursing profession needs leaders at all levels; ward, administration and executive and in an era in which there is a shortage of ICU nurses, nursing leadership is important, as positive leadership skills correlate with enhanced recruitment and retention of these specialist nurses. Six ICU nurses with at least 5 years experience in ICU nursing were recruited from a metropolitan hospital in Australia. Qualitative phenomenological methodology was used to depict the lived experiences of nurses' leadership in the adult ICU. Data were collected through individual semi-structured interviews using open-ended questions and analysed using Giorgi's [Giorgi A. Toward phenomenologically based research in psychology. J Phenomenol Psychol 1970;1:75-98] descriptive method for data analysis. Five themes emerged and these were all inter-related: leading by example, communication, ability to think outside the management square, knowing your staff and stepping up in times of crisis. These findings highlight the importance of nursing leadership in the adult ICU and the need to ensure that all current and future nursing ICU leaders are adequately prepared and educated for this role. This information may also be used to assist in the development of leadership skills in ICU nurses.