Leading change in challenging times: the gift of experience in a new book

Photo courtesy of Sherif Kamel

Encompassing years of thoughts, observations and reflections from the world of business policy and education, the American University in Cairo (AUC)’s very own Dean of the School of Business, Sherif Kamel, officially published his first book. Drawing on more than 30 years in the one-century-old university as a student, professor, and dean, Kamel’s book entails detailed memoirs and reflections about his personal experience, as well as tackles the dilemma of adapting to change amid challenging times. The book was the subject of a webinar held as part of the Willard Brown International Business Leadership Series by the AUC School of Business on March 31, 2022. Moderating the webinar was Professor of Management and Founding Dean of Cornell School of Business, Soumitra Dutta; who also shares a long-standing friendship and work relation with Kamel for near three decades.

Several testimonials allude to the book, but this one by Dan LeClair, CEO of The Global Business School Networks, truly captures its essence, stating, “Start reading this book to learn more about leadership and disruption in a complex dynamic environment, and you will soon realize that it has so much more to offer. It is about the personal growth of a truly talented and dedicated leader, blossoming of the respected institution he leads, and the boundless potential of the country he loves.”

The book is described by its author as a hybrid version of three interrelated dimensions; firstly, a memoir of his own personal journey in the government, the private sector, and in volunteering with nongovernmental organizations. Secondly, it is an institutional memory of the institution he proudly belongs to, the AUC School of Business- this year completing its 75 years of existence- and the bigger gem institution of over 100 years: AUC. The third would be the inspirational business leadership thought that Kamel shares in the book, specifically focusing on navigating change in the context of Egypt and its huge untapped potential. The economy, politics, ethics, culture, lifelong learning, and the evolving entrepreneurial landscape are all intertwined threads of some graceful storytelling carrying the title: “Leading Change in Challenging Times: Lessons of Disruption and Innovation from Egypt.

When asked about the name of the book, Kamel replied: “We cannot run away from change. The only way to face change is to embrace it, adapt to it, accept it, and try to drive it.” To stay relevant in an economy that is constantly changing, the author credited the trait of creativity and the event of disruption to be the sole driving forces behind getting accustomed to a rapidly changing world. It took seven years of meticulous writing by Kamel, putting his thoughts and learnings into words, until the book came to light, potentially acting as a vessel to support future leaders, entrepreneurs and policy makers to be as impactful as possible across the ecosystem where his institution operates and influences.

Throughout the webinar and obviously across the pages of the book, the notion of family is a recurrent theme. Regarding it as the inspiration for his book, Kamel explains in the webinar that family is “an integrated, complementing entity in anybody’s success”, believing that career and family are not separate silos but rather two experiences that enrich one another. “The family matters,” he said. The dean went back in time, 123 years ago, in 1899, to the era of his immediate grandfather, an entrepreneur, lawyer, and educator. At the time, there were no publishing houses founded nor owned by Egyptians, but rather established by the foreigners who were commonly residing in the country during that era. This was the motive for Kamel’s grandfather, Mohamed Ali Kamel Bey; and Dar el Taraqy (translating into House of Promotion, or taking the next level), the first Egyptian-owned publishing institution, was born. Afterwards, his grandfather’s agreement to print the revolutionary Kassem Amin’s pro-feminist book, “The Liberation of Women”- a back-then taboo issue to discuss- forced the house into eventually closing down. As he recounts this story, Kamel reflects on his grandfather’s early belief in pushing people into education and reading more, as well as opening opportunities for women to learn and contribute, for the society to reach its full potential.

Besides the inspiring tale of Kamel’s immediate grandfather, this was not the only inspiration for Kamel’s decision to write the book. Kamel’s belief in and his relationship with lifelong learning also traces back to his family, having several members who despite having successful careers, kept pursuing educational achievement and gained PhDs well into their fifties and sixties. Growing up, Kamel’s knowledge-sharing mindset was formed; “I wanted to share what I know, my journey, my ups and downs, my twists and turns,” he said, adding that this was one of the reasons he started writing his blog series “The Nile View’, an idea that brew during the COVID-19 lockdown.

In her foreword to the book, political scientist and the former president of AUC Lisa Anderson wrote about Kamel’s role in leading the efforts that positioned the AUC School of Business as “an asset to Egypt”, recognized by the major international organizations and among the highest ranking schools in the region. “It is no mystery why Sherif Kamel is routinely invited to consult with government agencies and private corporations, to lecture and teach around the world,” wrote Anderson, also adding, “This book provides a glimpse of a man, his remarkable tenure as dean, and some of the wisdom he has applied to reimagine business education in Egypt. He is by no means finished, but we can grateful that he has paused to take stock and share his insights with us.”

Covering a broad number of subjects in nine chapters of his new book of over 500 pages, Kamel maintains four key messages, related to the society, the organization, the individual and the intersection between people and technology. Human capital is the most important asset of every society, Kamel highlights; “It is the game-changer”. At the organizational level, sustainable success requires a number of building blocks- that have to be adaptable according to the changing context- namely a vision, a shared and clear purpose, a strategy, an institutional culture that supports all this and the proper governance. “Only a passionate and dedicated team can turn all this into a reality,” Kamel says reflecting that in his experience when one of those went wrong, the formula was disrupted, and fixing was needed. “I left the most important thing till last because people take it for granted,” he explained quoting Winston Churchill, “Attitude is a little thing that can make a big difference”.

On the individual level, Kamel emphasized learning and development that come in different shapes and forms: degrees, skills, training, observation, exposure, reading books, talking to people, getting inspiration. “That’s a lifetime journey, never a destination,” Kamel describes, “Sometimes I think of myself as a student of life or that I am a student for life.” Kamel moves on to the next level, which is the future, and how it is largely influenced by the huge impact that technological innovation, digital transformation and entrepreneurial mindset can potentially bring on to lives and livelihoods. “This can drive economic growth and prosperity, with a one caveat, and that it [digital transformation] has to be universal or else it exasperates the digital divide.”

The webinar featuring the book that the moderator, Soumitra Dutta, described as a ‘gift of rich experience-sharing’, ended with Kamel commenting on the role of business schools, continuing to impact society by graduating the movers and shakers of the future. “But we need to keep thinking of innovative offerings and adapting at a fast pace, because change will not stop.”

Get your copy of the book here.

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