‘No place to hide’? The realities of leadership in UK supermarkets SKOPE Research Paper No. 91 May 2010
Irena Grugulis, **Ödül Bozkurt and ***Jeremy Clegg
Bradford University School of Management, **Lancaster University Management School, ***Leeds University Business School
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Abstract This article explores the realities of managerial work in two major British supermarket chains. While the prescriptive literature welcomes the displacement of bureaucratic management by rote with leadership, empirical accounts of what managers actually do underscore how the purported tenets of leadership tend to disappear upon closer inspection, even at the discursive level. This study observes and discusses the discrepancy between the rhetoric of leadership articulated by executives at the corporate head offices and the actual roles and responsibilities of managers in stores. Work was tightly controlled and managers had little real freedom. We draw on empirical evidence to argue both that while leadership in practice secured only trivial freedoms such freedoms were highly valued and that academic analysis should follow these managers in their ability to distinguish between rhetorical flourishes and reallife job design. Leadership in practice is mundane and local.
Keywords: leadership, leaders, managers, control, deskilling, supermarkets, retail
Introduction This article explores the realities of managerial work in two major British supermarkets chains. While the prescriptive literature welcomes the displacement of bureaucratic management by rote with leadership (see for example Zaleznik 1992), empirical accounts of what managers and leaders actually do underscore how the purported tenets of ‘leadership’ tend to disappear upon closer inspection, even at the discursive level (Meindl et al. 1985, Alvesson and Sveningsson 2003a, 2003b, Tengblad 2004). Kelly (2008) has taken issue with the tendency in the leadership literature of discounting the ordinary everyday work activity of managers in lieu of a continued effort to theoretically pin down how leadership really ought to be conceptualised. He argues that the common terminology used by various writers conceals a wide diversity of practice and that leadership is locally produced. We join Kelly’s contention that ‘the apparently mundane practices that are made accountable and therefore observable remain unexplicated and actively ignored’ (2008:774) and that this is regrettable. We diverge from his emphasis on the reification of leadership through language games, however, and focus instead on the dissonance between the salience of leadership in the popular and practitioner representations of management jobs and the actual limits to the discretion, initiative and control that managers are able to exercise in the concrete, routine and core practices associated with their roles. This dissonance was actively exploited by the supermarkets’ business models. Celebratory accounts of leadership were cascaded down the managerial hierarchy, from the corporate head office to the departmental managers, to spur managerial staff to greater efforts in routine work. The empirical material we use to support these claims comes from a study of managers and managerial work in the stores of two of Britain’s largest supermarkets. In the four store sites where research was carried out, the work of managers was heavily prescribed, with ordering, product ranges, stock levels, store layouts, pricing, special offers and staffing policies...
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