This study reports the understandings of leadership held by 351 Victorian early childhood leaders (ECLs). Internationally, ECLs are expected to drive quality improvement through mentoring and modelling: a concept associated with distributive leadership. However, ECLs often move into leadership positions by accident and are ill-prepared for their role. Complicating their difficulties are extant perceptions of leadership: many follow models of leadership that prevent them from re-conceptualizing leadership in a new, socially constructed form. This impacts significantly on their ability to influence quality improvement. In this study, ECLs saw relational aspects of their role as particularly important, and were much less concerned with critiquing current quality praxis. They saw their role as important in supporting the development of high-quality practice identified in the National Quality Standards. The paper contends that ECLs play an important role in developing the professions own understandings of quality, and of leadership itself; thus, their lack of engagement in this debate is somewhat concerning. If EC is to continue to evolve as a profession internationally, we need ECLs who excel in quality improvement at the service level, and who are willing to advocate for the ongoing development of professional understandings of quality.