To identify factors that influence directors of nursing in their approach to leadership when working in rural Victoria, Australia.In rural areas, nurses account for the largest component of the health workforce and must be equipped with leadership knowledge and skills to lead reform at a service level.A qualitative descriptive design was used. In-depth semi-structured interviews were undertaken with directors of nursing from rural Victoria. Data were analysed using thematic analysis and a thematic network was developed.Empowerment emerged as the highest order category in the thematic network. This was derived from three organising themes: influence, capital and contextual understanding and the respective basic themes: formal power, informal power, self-knowledge; information, support, resources; and situational factors, career trajectory, connectedness.Rural nurse leaders contend with several issues that influence their approach to leadership. This study provides a platform for further research to foster nurse leadership in rural healthcare services.Acknowledgement of what influences the rural nurse leaders' approach to leadership may assist in the implementation of initiatives designed to develop leadership in a manner that is contextually sensitive.