Background Clinical academic nursing roles are rare, and clinical academic leadership positions even more scarce. Amongst the United Kingdom (UK) academia, only 3% of nurses who are employed within universities are clinically active. Furthermore, access to research fellowships and research grant funding for nurses in clinical or academic practice is also limited. The work of Florence Nightingale, the original role model for clinical academic nursing, is discussed in terms of how this has shaped and influenced that of clinical academic nurse leaders in modern UK healthcare settings. We analysed case studies with a view to providing exemplars and informing a new model by which to visualise a trajectory of clinical academic careers. Methods A Framework analysis of seven exemplar cases was conducted for a network of Clinical Academic Nursing Professors (n=7), using a structured template. Independent analysis highlighted shared features of the roles: 1) model of clinical academic practice, 2) infrastructure for the post, 3) capacity-building initiatives, 4) strategic influence, 5) wider influence, 6) local and national implementation initiatives, 7) research area and focus and 8) impact and contribution. Findings All seven of the professors of nursing involved in this discourse were based in both universities and healthcare organisations in an equal split. All had national and international profiles in their specialist clinical areas, and were implementing innovation in their clinical and teaching settings through boundary spanning. We outline a model for career trajectories in clinical academia, and how leadership is crucial. Conclusion The model outlined emphasises the different stages of clinical academic roles in nursing. Nursing as a discipline needs to embrace the value of these roles, which have great potential to raise the standards of healthcare and the status of the profession.