BACKGROUND: Public health needs to adapt to the complex context of 21st century Europe. Unquestionably, leaders for health require new skills to face a myriad of wicked problems and challenges that are at a critical juncture for potential improvements. Public health curricula are traditionally oriented around core educational disciplines, and there is little room for developing students' leadership capabilities within the context of public health. The aim is to present the meaning of contemporary public health leadership based on qualitative research and propose a curriculum model for contemporary public health leadership. METHODS: A series of in-depth semi-structured interviews were carried out with six European public health leaders from a variety of countries and professional backgrounds. The interviews recorded and transcribed. A thematic content analysis was undertaken to identify themes within the data. RESULTS: Five common themes that help to inform future leadership capacity arose from the interviews: the inner path of leadership, the essence of leadership, new types of leadership, future leaders' imperatives functioning within a complex and uncertain European public health context. CONCLUSION: The leadership thematic model makes an important contribution to defining public health leadership in Europe and can help to guide the content development of public health leadership curricula. The authors assert that a new 'integrative inquiry-based learning model', with leadership as a central component, will allow schools and departments of public health across Europe to be able to ensure that tomorrow's public health leaders are adequately trained and prepared for the challenges they will face.