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Entrepreneurial Leadership Failure and Its Impact on Student Entrepreneurial Spirit

Entrepreneurship is often overlooked by many universities. How failure in entrepreneurial leadership impacts student entrepreneurial spirit by examining selected universities in the MENA region?
Written by Ibrahim M. Karkouti

Today, more than ever, leaders in higher education institutions are required to transform espoused organizational values into enacted ones if they are to impact the broader society, improve their university’s international recognition, develop students’ 21st century skills, provide entrepreneurial opportunities for their students, and create positive change in students’ lives. Given the importance of developing students’ entrepreneurial spirit during their course of study, we establish the intricate relationship between leadership and entrepreneurship and explain how professional leadership practices enable entrepreneurship and enhance engagement in universities. Specifically, we focus on two universities from the MENA region where leadership has certainly gone wrong and examine the impact of poor leadership on entrepreneurship. The article ends with recommendations for research and future practice.

Leadership and Entrepreneurship: A Long-Standing Relationship

Leadership and entrepreneurship are inseparable in that they require higher education institutions to

  • create short and long-term learning opportunities that aim at enhancing the wellbeing of individuals and their societies, and
  • prioritize professional practices such as strategic planning, faculty development, business acumen improvement, and strategic partnership formation.

  • Today, scholars in the higher education field have come to a conclusion that leadership and entrepreneurship make up what they refer to as Entrepreneurial Leadership, which should be found among academic and support staff, as well as students. According to Jones-Evans (n.d.), entrepreneurial leadership can be defined as “the ability to anticipate, envision, maintain flexibility, think strategically and work with others to initiate changes that will create a viable future for the organisation” (para. 4).

    Notwithstanding its impact on institutions and individuals, entrepreneurial leadership can be difficult to achieve and is susceptible to political influences from within and outside the organization (Webber & Scott, 2008). Nevertheless, it is believed to enhance access to postsecondary education, promote growth in social and human capacity, and offer students with today’s market skills through bringing theory to practice. Specifically, entrepreneurial leadership restructures learning in a way that allows students to stay current with the constantly changing market demands and provides them with opportunities where they can practically apply their knowledge through internships and part-time employment. Accomplishing entrepreneurial objectives, however, requires leaders to balance between leadership and management in that they remain friendly and approachable “whilst staying sufficiently distant to exert authority” (Jones-Evans, n.d., para. 6). In summary, entrepreneurial leadership highlights main leadership practices and components as described by prominent scholars in the field (e.g., Bolman & Deal, 2013; Kouzes & Posner, 2003; Mintzberg, 2009).

    This does not seem to be the case at two leading universities in the MENA region where leadership failure is evident, according to a number of students who opened up to the author. A brief summary of these cases and representative quotes from student responses is presented next.

    How Leadership Failure Kills Entrepreneurship: Cases from AUB and AUC

    Ethics and entrepreneurship are interrelated and interconnected whereby ethical entrepreneurs apply leadership behaviors that impact society positively and promote growth and advancement within their organizations (Desi, 2018). The American University of Beirut (AUB) was not successful at creating an entrepreneurial campus climate because, in one year, they laid off over 1,500 employees sending a clear message to the student community that employers including higher education institutions can be unethical (Zakhour, 2020). Given their financial crisis, AUB’s leadership decided to abolish contracts and arbitrarily fire employees without considering the impact their decision has on students’ entrepreneurial intention, spirit, and skills. Speaking about this issue, students (N = 8) from different majors explained how frustrated they are because their university leadership negates what they study in the classroom about entrepreneurial leadership. Regarding this issue, Adam, an AUB student majoring in entrepreneurship, said, “I really do not believe in leadership or entrepreneurship after what the university did. What AUB did was contradictory to what I study in my business entrepreneurship major. Do you expect a student to believe a principle that you violate? AUB seems to disregard the importance of both leadership and entrepreneurship” (personal communication, July 30, 2020).

    Equally important, creating a safe learning environment conducive to student success is a fundamental leadership principle and a prerequisite for successful entrepreneurial practices on campus. This doesn’t seem to be the case at the American University in Cairo (AUC), my own university, where over hundred female students were sexually harassed by a former male student who seemed to be able to get away with it during his time on campus because female students were not informed about existing policies and procedures that combat harassment, discrimination, and racism (see Egypt Independent, 2020; Shamaa, 2020). In support of this argument, AUC’s statement on this incident was incomplete, unclear and vague; AUC stated, “the accused is no longer an AUC student, and that he left in 2018. The university stressed that its policies do not tolerate sexual harassment and that it is committed to maintaining a safe environment for all members of the university’s community” (Egypt Independent, 2020, para. 20).

    After asking students (N = 5) about the impact this incident has on entrepreneurship, all students concluded that vague policies and the lack of communication with university administrators on culturally sensitive issues create a sense of detachment and estrangement, which in turn alienates them and undermines their entrepreneurial spirit. According to Salma, “I still do not know where to go or what to do if I faced similar incidents on campus… I do not belong to the AUC community anymore and I care about nothing except graduating and moving on. All that I need is the degree and I can focus on entrepreneurship elsewhere after that.” (personal communication, August 3, 2020). Salma’s assertion clearly indicates that adequate communication and clear university policies, which are central to social entrepreneurship, promote ethical practice on campus and enhance students’ learning experience. In order to solve similar issues within and outside higher education institutions, university leaders should act as social change agents who adjust common misconceptions, rectify problems, and resolve ambiguity using multiple socially and ethically entrepreneurial approaches conducive to professional leadership and management (Catherall & Richardson, n.d.; Salamzadeh, Azimi, & Kirby, 2013).

    Conclusion and Recommendations

    In conclusion, the importance of entrepreneurship in higher education should not be neglected or pulled out only during special events for public display. Instead, university leaders should consider entrepreneurship in every action they take and all initiatives they launch if they are to create entrepreneurial campus climates that actively engage students in the learning process, enhance student learning outcomes, and empower their entrepreneurial spirit. Failure to do so will degrade the quality of education, reduce university global recognition and impact, and reinforce outdated teaching methods that do not challenge students’ higher-order thinking skills. Finally, scholars in the field are required to investigate the factors that facilitate entrepreneurship development in higher education so that students attain quality entrepreneurial education that helps them serve their society. Universities along with their students should also work together on integrating entrepreneurship in every aspect of learning, devising plans that amplify the impact of entrepreneurship beyond the classroom walls, and launching community-based opportunities that serve disadvantaged young entrepreneurs.


    Bolman, L. G., & Deal, T. E. (2013). Reframing organizations: Artistry, choice, and leadership (5th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

    Catherall, R., & Richardson, M. (n.d.). Social entrepreneurship in education. Retrieved from

    Desi, A. (2018). Entrepreneur ethics and importance of ethics in key areas of business. Retrieved from

    Egypt Independent. (2020). Social media users accuse former AUC student of harassing, raping dozens of girls. Retrieved from

    Jones-Evans, D. (n.d.). Entrepreneurial leadership. Retrieved from

    Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2003). Academic administrator's guide to exemplary leadership. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

    Mintzberg, H. (2009). Managing. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

    Salamzadeh, M., Azimi, A. A., & Kirby, D. A. (2013). Social entrepreneurship education in higher education: Insights from a developing country. International Journal of Entrepreneurship and Small Business, 20(1), 17-34.

    Shamaa, M. (2020). Over 100 university students accuse Egyptian man of rape. Retrieved from

    Weber, C. F., & Scott, S. (2008). Entrepreneurship and educational leadership development: Canadian and Australian perspectives. International Electronic Journal for Leadership in Learning, 12(14), 1-15.

    Zakhour, M. (2020). AUB just laid off 1,500 employees. Retrieved from


Leadership institutional culture entrepreneurial education entrepreneurial university Egypt

About the author

Ibrahim M. Karkouti
Assistant Professor of Educational Leadership, Graduate School of Education, The American University in Cairo

Ibrahim M. Karkouti is an independent thinker, a young scholar, and a life-long learner who teaches leadership at the American University in Cairo. Ten years of professional experience in Lebanon, Qatar, and the United States have taught Ibrahim that learning has no boundaries and that education matters the most when it is used to remedy the deleterious effects of segregation, racism, sectarianism, and other forms of discriminatory practices that prevent historically excluded populations from attaining their basic rights to education, healthcare, and prosperity. Karkouti’s research focuses on diversity issues in higher education, the elements that aid in the facilitation of the use of technology in the classroom and the types of social support K-12 teachers need to embrace and implement reform.

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