Many forces are at play beneath the public face of organizations and particular tensions emerge when policy rhetoric encounters organizational and leadership reality. These inherent contextual tensions are explored at the sharp or operational end of leadership, the organizational space where policies are implemented, values enacted and practices evidenced. The sharp end leaves little room for intellectual introspection or detailed post hoc analysis favoured by those more detached from the action. However, the sharp end does provide a useful position from which to explore the so-called crisis of leadership ethics. Describing a complex activity space, this paper highlights how individual biases, group dynamics and countervailing forces shape behaviour, and their collective influence can often derail well-intentioned actions by creating irrational moments that spiral out of control. Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.