European governments and workers loathe the "Wild West" tactics of American management. Far from the heroes they are at home, American managers like Jack Welch are viewed in Europe as the agents of run-amok laissez-faire economics. By contrast, European managers are expected to work in partnership with labor and government in a consensus-based system. But double-digit unemployment and low economic growth rates signal that something has gone badly wrong with the consensus model. It has been misappropriated by fearful unions and vote-seeking governments to gain refuge from the harsh realities of global competition.
A few European managers finally are challenging the status quo. Krupp boss Gerhard Cromme's unexpected hostile bid for rival Thyssen paved the way for a merger that will lower costs and make Germany competitive again in steel. Renault's chief executive, Louis Schweitzer, is trying to make France's largest auto maker globally competitive by 2000. And Air France CEO Christian Blanc is pushing two-tier pay for pilots to get his company on the same competitive par as U.S. rivals.
Many European managers are at the point of choosing between bankruptcy and radical cure. Many have simply given up and send their job-producing investments to the less costly U.S., Eastern Europe, and Asia. Those who can't shift production or simply wish to fight are battling to make their home bases more competitive. They are the European version of the American corporate cowboy--people with the vision to engineer bold restructuring plans, face down hostile opponents, and save doomed companies.
It's too late in the day for Europe to talk about consensus. If workers and governments want to salvage anything from their crumbling social model, they will have to face the realities of global competition more squarely and treat industry as a partner, not a hostage.