How leaders turn around declining performance is a significant issue for companies, their employees, their customers, their shareholders and, more generally, society. Leadership influence during times of change is well recognised in the literature; however, leadership during a turnaround is more complex and less understood. In-depth examinations of the role and activities of turnaround leaders have received insufficient attention in the literature to date. Specifically, studies have not investigated, in-depth, the tensions that leaders face during a turnaround process. To begin addressing this gap in the literature, we utilise case studies of four companies to examine the core tensions leaders experience, when they occur during the turnaround process and how they are managed. We frame our focus on leadership tensions in three prominent domains in the literature, leadership change, leadership assertiveness and strategic orientation. Our findings identify and detail the management of six core tensions that leaders experience across a five-stage turnaround process model. We conclude that effective turnaround leadership is less about particular skill sets or 'types' of leaders for different stages of the recovery process, and more about their ability to purposefully navigate and balance apparently conflicting activities within these tensions. We discuss the implications of these findings for theory and practice.