The growing refugee crisis looms large in a world of increasing chaos, crisis, and conflict. Globally, around 3.5% of 8 billion people, about 280 million, desperately seek shelter, food, and safety. These are unimaginable hardships for any refugee, from any land, at any time. Yet, no matter where we come from or what turbulence and challenges we face, we can positively impact the world and overcome extreme adversity. In this episode, Dr. Maja Zelihic shares how her idyllic childhood was unexpectedly upended by war in the former Yugoslavia. Maya went West. Her story and incredible journey create a magnificent map of ‘possibility.’ Tune in to Dr. Maja’s story of survival, strength, and hope.
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A Refugee is a Refugee’ with Dean Dr. Maja (Maya) Zelihic in the USA
Anyone, from any Land, at any Time
Our thoughtful, bold leader in this episode joins us from the Southern State of Florida in the United States of America. Her life at seventeen went from a wonderland into a living nightmare. Separated from her family, she escaped the Bosnian war in former Yugoslavia and spent three years in an Austrian refugee camp. With the help of the Lutheran church, she made her way to the United States and became an immigrant refugee. She held 6 to 7 jobs in her 20s and 30s, from being a janitor to babysitting and warehousing.
After a career in consumer financial services, she moved into academia. Now, she is the Dean of the Forbes School of Business and Technology at the University of Arizona Global Campus. She is a Fulbright Specialist, a full-time professor, and a GLOBE researcher who has contributed to large-scale research in 160 countries on cultural practices, leadership ideals, and interpersonal trust. She has co-authored a book and co-created an index on perception.
In 2021, peopleHum named her in the Top 200 Leaders to Follow. Global Leaders Today named her as one of the Global 100 Inspiring Leaders. Stay tuned as you learn more about her escape from war, rise to the top, and why a refugee is a refugee. Anyone, anywhere, anytime, could face a similar fate. We warmly welcome my dear friend, Dr. Maya Zelihic, and welcome to the show.
Maya, thank you so much for joining me. It’s wonderful to see you.
Thank you for having me, Anne—greetings to all your readers.
I loved our first conversation. I’m so struck by your remarkable background and where you come from, having grown up in the former country of Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia has a challenging history. Can you take us back in time? What marked your childhood? What were the most difficult moments? When did you decide to leave?
I feel that I had the most idyllic childhood that one can imagine. Sometimes as I was reflecting on my childhood, I wondered if it was that perfect or if it was perfect in comparison to what happened afterward. Be that as it may, I grew up in a family where I was the only child, just parents, and grandparents. My parents were very young. They were in pursuit of different business ventures. My father was in sports. My mom was running a very well-accomplished and famous pub in Sarajevo.
Both were entrepreneurs within the context of socialist countries. You and I talked about Yugoslavia being a bit of a bipolar society socialist at its very core. However, you could still be an entrepreneur, and we were Western-oriented. We were not part of the Eastern Bloc. My grandparents were the most influential people in my life because I spent the most time with my grandparents, especially my grandfather, as my parents worked outside of the home.
My childhood was marked by this incredibly strong, well-educated, and powerful grandfather, a pivotal person in my education, my formative years, and a couple of times in different shows. I mentioned this whole concept of me waking up and playing a party of chess with him and then discussing different topics. He asked me to solve some of the world’s problems when I was 4 or 5.
I thought that was very common and normal. That was not necessarily a standard upbringing when I started going to school because I realized not every young girl had those tough conversations with their grandfather. I’m a bit biased on some Eastern European education. I’m going to venture out to say that whatever we were lacking in certain areas of life, we were overcompensating with the strength of our educational system.
I loved school. I was always a nerd. I had lots of friends very well-accepted in the community. I cannot think of one moment that was even remotely traumatic or difficult for me; maybe in comparison to certain more developed countries, there was something we might have lacked, but if you don’t know what you’re lacking, you’re not craving that. We were able to travel. Unlike many other Eastern European countries, we were exposed to different cultures. Everything came to an end when I was seventeen and a half.
That’s when the nightmare started that impacted that whole region. The nightmare started maybe a year prior, but Bosnia was impacted when I was seventeen and a half. The war started the turmoil. Within days, we lost our house and became refugees in our city. My family was separated. My parents were in one part of the city. I was with my parents. My grandparents were in another part of the city. We’re trying to rescue my grandparents to join us, at least for us to be together as in the shelter. Everything was happening from Friday, from me thinking about a school play on Monday to being in a shelter and separated as a family, and we lost the house. We’re talking about a span of 5 to 7 days.
Can you remember what date that was?
I do believe that it was April 6, 1992. I was supposed to have my school play because we were rehearsing it on Friday, before that Monday. That was my best day in high school. We were doing a final rehearsal. I felt incredibly accomplished, and then a boy I liked came by and told me I looked wonderful on stage. That gave me hope that we may have some dating future. I do remember that last moment in high school as so beautiful.
I’ve never seen him again. I’ve never done the play. I went back to that school twenty years later. It happened seemingly overnight. I’m sure the older people were following politics and understanding what was behind the scenes, but I was a teenager. My focus was on school, boys, and where to go out. I was not watching politics. For my generation, this war was a complete shock.
You mentioned that the borders were closed at some point, and you escaped near death. Can you take us back to that moment in time? Where were you? What happened? Can you share a little more about that?
I was like a tourist living within the region. As naïve as many of us were, we were under the assumption, for whatever reason, that all would be well. Nowadays, we can only question that statement. Many of our adults told us, “This will end in a few weeks. People will come to their senses. We’re going to continue living together.” The assumption was, “If you have relatives and family members somewhere where it was still peaceful, let us send whomever we/you can send. Children, usually, women to those relatives.”
I went and stayed within the region. I spent some time with my uncle and his family. The more the situation has gotten worse, at some point in time, as young as I was, I realized, “This is not getting better.” There’s a lot of survivor’s guilt associated with that realization because there are many folks that stayed in the country and suffered tremendously, from people being killed to women being raped, which was a huge issue in Bosnia, in particular people who became disabled for the rest of their lives.
You do have that survivor’s guilt. Putting that guilt aside, I decided to go West. My goal was not well shaped in my mind. “Going West” was the only thought I had. I didn’t know where do I go. I’ve heard of a Red Cross accepting some refugees. There were multiple refugee centers already all across Europe. In one of those situations, I boarded a bus and went through Hungary. My goal was Germany. I never made it to Germany. I ended up in Austria. It’s in-between.
My actual ultimate goal was Germany. I had my childhood friend in Germany. She had an apartment with her whole family. She said that we could share. My ultimate goal was not to land in a refugee center. I ended up landing in a refugee center. I stayed there for 3.5 years with 30-plus refugees. We always said more than 30, sometimes 30 to 35. That’s where I spent my refugee years, primarily in Austria in Innsbruck. I was and was not alone.
I had family members from my mom’s side of the family that was also at the center, but as far as my own family unit, I was alone. It presented some difficulties because we weren’t getting the Red Cross aid and stuff as individuals. When you’re alone, you have to supplement. I was supplementing by doing janitorial jobs and babysitting. Those are jobs that I could obtain and do on the side to sustain myself.
When was the day you decided to leave? Can you take us back to that day and how you felt then? What was the conversation you had with your family?
I had no conversations with my family. My family was then in Bosnia. I got a letter from my mom. The letters traveled for a long time. In that letter, she indicated she was wounded for the second time. Later on, piecing together my grandmother’s and mom’s letters, I realized that my mom was incredibly lucky to survive. She was severely wounded. That was her second time being wounded as a civilian in the war.
Reading her letter took away my hope for the region, which is horrible because there are many people. I want to preface this by saying many people stayed. The second time my mom was wounded, I realized I had to leave. I felt suffocated. I was young. When you’re young, you’re quite naïve and very optimistic, leaving as many of us did, with no plan, no contingency plan other than “I have a friend in Germany.” I think making this move with kids would be so much harder. I didn’t run it by anyone.When you're young, you're quite naive and very optimistic. Click To Tweet
You spent a little time being a refugee in Austria. Is there a particular event you can take us back to in Austria that marked and shaped your life and how you view the world now?
We talked a little bit about the refugee crisis in the world. We were reflecting on the status of Ukraine refugees. We were drawing some parallels to the refugees coming from other parts of the world, such as certain areas in Africa and the Middle East, and how there’s a difference in treatment. I mentioned that I cannot even imagine what some refugees are going through now. Still, it was very hard for the refugees from the former Yugoslavia region, in Europe, in general, in the 1990s.
Everything in life is the comparison and putting things in perspective. Maybe our status was better than being a Syrian refugee in Denmark as a scenario. We talked about that situation. For me, with the understanding that there were supportive Austrian organizations that were helping us out also, including the Red Cross, there were a lot of animosities regarding regular Austrians towards the refugee population.
There’s always that ancient and old notion of someone taking our jobs or space, which was semi-ridiculous. We see this in the United States. The jobs I took were not the ones that any Austrian would like to do. When I was dating my husband, at the time, he was working on this farm. In ice-cold water, he washed vegetables to the point where he would get severe arthritis-like symptoms. I can assure you a regular Austrian with means will not do that job for hours at a time.
Some of the things we encountered were the extreme wings of Austrian society. I want to preface this by acknowledging there are always extremists everywhere. We would be kicked off the bus because our “bus or tram ticket” was allegedly “invalid.” I started attending Leopold-Franzens Universität in Innsbruck. I had a student ticket, which was valid and perfect. I would take the tram from Innsbruck to the small village where we used to live. That is a 40 or 50-minute ride. It is through the mountains through the Alps. It’s not a walk. It’s not something that you want to take on yourself because, a lot of times, it’s during the snow. The conductor looked at my ticket and kicked me off the tram because something was apparently not valid with my ticket. That was sadly pretty common. I ended up walking for a few hours in dangerous conditions.There's always extremists everywhere. Click To Tweet
He alleged there was something wrong with the ticket.
There was nothing wrong with the ticket, but that was one of the typical situations we encountered as refugees. Another scenario I encountered with a few friends was the waiter telling us to leave the restaurant because they didn’t want “any trouble.” Yet again, there were certain extremist members of the Austrian society at the time.
At the time, the right-wing party won in that particular province. For every great person we would encounter, maybe there would be another one that would not be as friendly. I was standing in the snow, poetically kicked off the tram with a valid ticket. Not to mention, even if my ticket was not valid, there were so many different ways of handling that situation, taking me to the next station. It wasn’t safe. I felt powerless and humiliated. There were several moments like that, but it was one thing that you expect, as a refugee, you don’t feel like an equal member of society. No one owes you equal rights or equal treatment. You come to expect those types of scenarios.
How did you navigate through that situation?
The strength is in the numbers. I didn’t feel alone. My fellow refugees were experiencing various things, subtle or not subtle, humiliating moments. You come and start sharing those experiences. There is a strength in knowing it’s not necessarily something that is happening to you. You still feel lonely at that moment. You feel angry, but the worst thing is you don’t feel you can report this to anyone. You also feel lucky that that’s the least done, which is a weird conflicting thought you have.
In terms of what happened to you during that process of feeling humiliated going through this refugee status and being targeted, treated differently, and treated without dignity and respect, to what extent has that been parallel for you in terms of the life of Nelson Mandela?
I was watching a movie about Mandela many years later. I was already here in the United States. We were talking about the concept of how relatable his story was. To a certain degree, I felt that he was never alone in that prison cell, even though he was. He was physically alone in the prison cell, but he had the whole movement on his shoulders and behind his back.
If there is that strength of knowing that you are righteous, what is done to you is not right and, “I haven’t done anything wrong.” Drawing a parallel, I cannot even put myself in the same sentence as Mandela. Please let us get that out of the way, first and foremost. In a couple of those moments in Austria, there was no despair because I knew it wasn’t right. That is the strength that you have.
You know that this incident that has happened to me is not right. I haven’t done anything to deserve it. There is also such strength in knowing I was wronged. I felt strong, feeling I’m within my rights to stand there. That’s what I felt, drawing some comparison that he must have felt robbed of those years he went through.
In that moment for you, where did you draw that strength apart from that sense of, “I’ve been wronged.” You mentioned your fellow refugees. What other anchors and supporting allies did you draw on in helping you stay strong?
There were many incredibly supportive members of the Austrian community. There was a society that was taking care of the refugees. One of the ladies from that society would take me to her home, and I would spend weekends at our home because she wanted me to get familiar with German as quickly as possible. I was able to pass the German state exam rather quickly. To enroll in the university, an immigrant student organization at the University of Leopold-Franzens, was also a source of support.
I’ll then try to say something which is probably not necessarily inspirational. Trauma is an incredible support agent. When you’re in a setting of being traumatized, PTSD happens after the fact. While you’re in the midst of situations, you’re not experiencing the impact of it. I never cried, not even once, up until the point of time when I was in the United States. Why I cried in the United States, and I didn’t cry throughout all those years of starting the war, losing a family, a house, mom being wounded, and all that stuff. I didn’t cry because I was traumatized.Trauma is an incredible support agent. Click To Tweet
1st and 2nd day here in the United States, I finally felt safe. I started crying for hours. I hear many people go through a traumatic situation one way or the other. They release that angst once they’re safe, not while under trauma. We were all on autopilot. You and I had this conversation where I always said that I must rationalize everything and compare myself to others. I always want to preface this by saying my story is much better and easier to bear than many. At the same point in time, it is my experience. It wasn’t easy for me to go through certain moments of life. With that said, I was the fortunate one.
Share a little about how you transitioned from coming from Australia to the United States and landing here with refugee status.
I was in refugee status in the United States for one year and a half until we got our green card. I was technically a refugee for 4 or 5 years or something like that. It was such a terrific, easy transition. I was interviewed by the Lutheran Church or Lutheran Social Service because they were the ones that helped us come here to the United States. I always told them, “I don’t think my story is typical.” They said, “It is your story. We’re not seeking typical stories. We’re seeking stories.”
My adjustment was so easy because I finally felt that this was a place where I could start afresh. I feel that I have equal chances because with me being equal is one of the big themes of my life. “I may not have what you have, but am I given the same opportunities you have? Did this society accept me?” Absolutely. We’re also drawing comparisons to different refugee crises in the United States.
Being a refugee in the ’90s in the United States was an excellent status. Communities were very supportive. Lutheran Social Services were incredibly supportive. I was able to do a real job. The janitorial opportunities were not the only ones at my disposal. I started working in the warehouse, but that was a real job. I had a real paycheck and medical benefits. We were able to get a small apartment with some furniture that was given to us by Lutheran Social Services.
I still remember the lady apologizing about the furniture and talking about the sofa being this and that. It was the most beautiful sofa and lamp I’ve ever seen. I keep telling her, “It’s gorgeous.” She looks like something’s wrong with me. It’s that little sofa, lamp, and being able to close your doors without sharing your space with 35-plus people. It’s my adjustment to this society and American culture. The acceptance level that I encountered here was such an easy transition.
You talk about the culture of the country at the time and the support systems within the country. What would you say to refugees about how to make this transition and carve their path forward?
I love the American people and spirit. Turn off your TVs. Stop watching politics and listening to the news because you will encounter incredible people when you land in a small city or community. They may not trust you in your first encounter because, yet again, they’re also listening to politics and many different stories. When you start getting to that micro level of a co-worker to a co-worker, a church member to a church member, or a neighbor to a neighbor, you will get an incredibly good experience.
It is slightly different. I don’t want to dismiss one important element. I’d be very naïve if I dismissed this element, and this element has to be said. We might have been embraced quicker because we could adjust to American culture quicker. We were able to fit in a bit quicker. That is by the nature of our original culture and native culture that was not vastly different – the way we approached certain things within American society.
While I was in America celebrating “Thanksgiving” in November, I knew that with people back in the former Yugoslavia, we celebrated it too, in June. We were eager to embrace and accept a new culture on both sides. Certain cultures are more traditional in clinging to their ways. We were able to adapt to a new culture faster. It is an element not to be neglected.
What got you into academia, why this position, and why now?
I was working in the warehouse, and it was the warehouse that was attached to this mortgage company. I ended up working in the field of mortgages. I started working for the Merrill Lynch Credit Corporation. I was in the finance industry. We worked for a private label company servicing many important players like Merrill Lynch, Charles Schwab, USAA, KeyBank, and others. I worked in the mortgage industry for quite some time with high net-worth individuals and servicing the West Coast, even though I lived on the East Coast. There is something with me on the West Coast. It seems like I always work on the West Coast, and I am on the East Coast, which is possible here in the United States.
To make a long story short, I got into the training sector. I started training. Through training, I’ve discovered my love for learning. I’ve also discovered my passion for being a storyteller because if you’re a teacher, you’re also a storyteller. I started putting a lot of effort into corporate training. For three years, I played this balancing game where I was working my “regular job” during the day, and at night, I was teaching.If you're a teacher, you're also a storyteller. Click To Tweet
I started doing part-time teaching at some universities here locally. In 2013, I made a big move. It was a questionable move from the finance industry to the world of education. Starting in 2013, I have been in the educational arena. Shortly thereafter, I discovered my love for research. I started doing research in the developing world in particular. e-Learning implementation in the developing world is where I discovered my passion for giving back and being able to relate to different areas worldwide where people are struggling. They’re becoming successful despite all the odds. I did several studies based on that theme. What makes an entrepreneur successful, overcoming all the obstacles and variables?
How did you land at the Forbes School of Business?
I started working as a regular instructor and then became a program Chair, managing the program. I then moved up the ladder to Department Chair. My predecessor decided to retire, so I became an Interim Dean. After the interview process, I was appointed a full-time Dean of the Forbes School of Business. Someone asked me whether my aspiration was always to be a Dean. I said, “No, I could only think as high up as a Department chair.”
This happened unexpectedly. It was a beautiful journey. It was also a bit of a difficult journey. Still, I’m very eager to see what I can accomplish, and we’ve done a lot here with the Forbes School of Business and the University of Arizona Global Campus. It’s an exciting journey with supportive leadership. We’re doing a lot of terrific projects, so I’m very happy about it.
You alluded to the fact that it’s been a beautiful journey but also a difficult battle. Can you share with us one of those difficult moments?
Certain elements of my life are very ordinary to me. Looking from the outside, they’re not ordinary. My husband was wounded in the war as well. He was severely wounded and had nineteen-plus surgeries. I met and married my husband when my husband was already severely disabled. My entire life, I have lived with an individual with severe disabilities.
There are certain challenges associated with that. There is this need for me to be the main breadwinner, not only necessarily the only breadwinner. He was also working, but I was the main earning force within this household. Taking care of many things that perhaps in my 20s and 30s, women my age did not necessarily have to face, like working on medical bills and securing proper medicine that we can afford versus the ones we cannot.
Those are the type of situations that many folks encounter in their 50s, 60s, and 70s. That was my life in my twenties, waiting outside the surgery room, making sure he woke up, and being disappointed that every new surgery was not bringing him to a better place. At a point in time, we decided on no more surgeries. They cannot help anymore. My constant is to realize that you’re losing hope of getting better and must make the situation the best you can. I never use it as an obstacle because that is the existence I live and the life I chose. I would imagine that will be difficult for some folks.
I’m curious. Given that many people are dealing with these issues, what steps did you and your husband take to navigate that path from transitioning out of no more surgeries? We must park that aspiration, deal with what we have and move forward.
He is doing everything that he’s able to do. He is an incredibly supportive father. We pour all of our love and efforts into our children. We don’t have a reference point for things being different. That is our existence. I don’t even think that we’re conscientiously thinking about these things. We know from the time I set the table there are certain functions he’s unable to do. He’s very helpful in washing dishes, but that’s one of the tasks he won’t be able to help with.
There’s no expectation. He knows which side of the table you must set up, and there is a certain accommodation in the house because he cannot use one of his hands. I don’t think we’re focusing on that. I don’t think it’s one of the areas of focus. I am fiercely protective, more so than the normal type of relationships. Sometimes I feel like I have to be his voice even though he has his voice. Those are the things I think the relationship naturally progressed to the level of me being this protector.
This is not a situation where we met before that. This is a situation that I married into and am aware of it. The children don’t know any different. This is a normal existence for us. It is an obstacle in that there are certain cases where I had to work a couple of different jobs back in the day. I also know I must be that security blanket for the “what-if” scenario. I think more of what-ifs than “normal” people.
You referenced that you have been doing this since the age of twenty. As a refugee trying to deal with these huge medical costs, what were the practical steps you took to help support you during that time?
Everyone who knows me asks how many jobs I need to feel secure. There were times in my 20s and 30s when I was working 6 or 7 jobs. I was constantly thinking about medicine, like making sure that medicines and children are taken care of, what-ifs. I have a full-time job. There’s this contract here and there, consulting here and there.
This is silly even to draw this comparison. My grandfather was born in 1929. He went through the hunger years after The Depression and everything. He had this thing of stocking up our pantry with so much food. My childhood was very idyllic. We were never hungry. I could never understand why this man was equipping us for something that would happen tomorrow. The saddest thing about his pantry is we lost that house within days. We lost the pantry. His supplies helped someone, but they did not help my family. It helped whoever took over our house.
That tells you the silliness of the false notion that you can put material things aside to help you be rescued. In my case, it’s not a pantry. It ensures you have extra savings for, “What if there’s another surgery?” There is that heightened sense of the catastrophic scenarios that should normally a well-balanced person should not have those scenarios.
You referenced your grandfather. At 4 or 5, he asked you about the world’s big problems. Let’s fast forward. In your view, what are the big problems in the world now? What keeps you concerned about what needs to be done?
There are several things, but this isn’t going to stay within my particular area of expertise because there are many other things that I’m not an expert on. When we were doing a thought leader summit, we talked about the energy crisis. I’m not an expert on the energy crisis. That’s one of the opportunities. We’re talking about clean water and how many people in the world don’t have access to clean water, leading to disease and not having access to medical services. Forget about appropriate medical services. Going back to my area and in the developing world, I’ve encountered incredibly intelligent young people not having access to education.
This is where I tell my students, “You cannot make changes at the global level unless you’re the prime minister, president, or king of the country, but you can make changes within the small area that you can impact.” When I started doing e-Learning implementation ventures in Southern Africa, I saw what happened with women or young ladies. They can attend higher learning institutions in Zambia. They are going to avoid marriages that they don’t want and be able to educate themselves.You cannot make changes at the global level unless you're like a prime minister, president of the country, king of the country. But you can make changes within the small area that you can impact. Click To Tweet
It was one of those things, “Can you walk to the nearest school or university?” Sometimes the answer would have been, “No, it’s not safe. You can walk 7 or 8 hours.” With online education, they can log in with somewhat stable Internet access. Access to education, being able to pursue an education and especially gender equality, and making sure you have equity in the whole process, we are running here in the Center for Women’s Leadership at the Forbes School of Business that we founded during the pandemic years. Western women were incredibly blessed.
There are still opportunities, and we can shatter the glass ceiling, but if we’re not lacking the necessities like sanitary products. We’re not being forced into any forced arranged marriages when we’re underage. We are not deprived of the ability to go and educate ourselves, whereas our brothers are given that opportunity. There are so many opportunities in that area. Those are some of the things that I can humbly say that I’ve tried to make a difference within my very small, microscopic area of influence.
If you think about the world, what do you think, apart from access to education, are other big issues pivotal for this time?
I’m afraid of the hate that is happening within the world, like ethnic tensions and religious tensions. There’s so much vile rhetoric happening across the world. Us being able to access information, there’s no filtering. Everyone can access everything. There are these crazy conspiracy theories left and right. They’re dividing us or taking us further apart. I am afraid of a world that is divided into many different areas.
We were talking about how we reflected on refugees. I said, “I’m thankful for how the European countries welcomed and embraced Ukraine refugees.” I would have loved to see the same treatment of refugees coming from different parts of the world because a refugee is a refugee. A Ukraine mom and a mom from Congo are moms with babies in their arms. They’re trying to rescue their children. There’s no difference.
I’m afraid of global tensions regarding a lot of extreme rhetoric. I’m watching European news quite a bit. I’m seeing here in the United States and many different parts of the world the whoever-us-is versus them logic. You’re doing great work on the Mandela leadership blueprint and style. Mandela is someone that is born once in a few centuries. I wish we had a clear world leader spreading the message of hope, equality, and love. I don’t see that clear candidate. We have to go with the teachings of those men and women who are no longer with us.
To that point, to what extent do you think Mandela’s leadership life and leadership example are relevant? Based on what you have learned about Mandela and some of the parallels you have drawn, what do you think Mandela would say to the world?
You mentioned that you knew Mandela and some of his family. I know of him from the books and movies. I cannot pretend to even remotely understand his personality type when he’s surrounding himself with his friends and his family. I will venture off to say that: he would be upset and disheartened with what’s happening because many things are happening in the world that are anti-his principles.
We’re talking about Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, and Dr. King. All three of those men would give us a good lecture because “we lost our way.” Mandela would probably tell us he would have to emphasize his message because there are many pockets of the world where messages such as Mandela’s message have been lost. I consider Mandela’s message one of hope, love, equality, and fairness. He would have to tell us (the world) his message more.
Frankly, we would touch upon some of those great people during the educational system. I don’t know that we’re necessarily getting into the philosophy of their thoughts. I don’t think that our young people are fully understanding it. It seems to me that in this age, everyone is on Tik Tok, et al. There are so many superficial things that our young people are laser-focused on.
As I’m talking about this, something comes to my mind. We need a movement. That is what you’re talking about; that whole global movement where pursuing these ideals becomes cool again. I use the word cool because that’s what young people relate to. I’m not trying to oversimplify because every generation will find its way. When you talk to a young person, and my daughter is a teenager, it’s like ideals put forth for her generation than materialistic things, travel, and makeup tutorials to no end. It’s all good entertainment, but that cannot be it for those young minds.
That’s why all these cofounders have come together from around the world. The common thread is that we all have been touched somehow by Mandela’s life, leadership, and legacy. We understand it requires a movement. A global movement for change enabled and empowered Nelson Mandela’s and South Africa’s stories—your role in this movement for impact and change inspires me.
Tell me a little about your academic work because you made a good point. I know you’re part of a global research study. You talk about your fear of hate and these deep divides worldwide. What inspired you to do this global research around leadership and cultural practices? What are some of the key takeaways?
In 2013, I went into the full-time world of academia. Within one year or so, I started doing some small-scale research ventures. I was very fortunate that our university was providing research grants. They were not necessarily substantial because we were not talking enough money to have a team, but I could do different research ventures worldwide. Through that, I went into becoming a Fulbright specialist. I did one research as a co-investigator and one as an investigator.
We explored the leadership style that was a good fit for the Southern African region. There’s this whole colonial baggage. It seemed pack seal on the leadership in Africa. We were talking about the unique path that Zambian leaders have to take. They’re not mimicking their Western counterparts. They are focusing on what works within the Zambian context.
Later on, I was approached by the Globe researchers because they lacked data from one country in particular. I was a co-investigator in Zambia, and they were studying the cultural practices and leadership practices across the globe. When we had this meeting, there were so many co-investigators and investigators from a particular country, but they were not from that country.
I was able to get the data from Zambia quickly with all the contacts that I had. The research is not fully done as of yet. We’re still in the phase of data being gathered and research being processed. The point is to come up with some patterns and trends in leadership practices across the world. Yet again, with the understanding, one size does not fit all, and not all certain themes are applicable across the globe.
When will that be revealed?
The main investigators are the ones that are putting all this together, and they’re going to start doing the first round of presentations and articles. Some started in 2023, but I would imagine it in the next few years.
Shifting gears a little to some fun facts. What was one of your favorite times or moments with your grandfather?
We had this popular picnic area. It’s a place where people can go on weekends. You would have a horse-drawn carriage taking you through these magnificent trees. We would take that carriage, and then I would pretend to be a princess. He would make a big fuss of opening doors for me and handing me his hand. We would go to eat by the river. He was always making a big deal out of me.
The way I was dressed was semi-ridiculous if you would see some of my childhood pictures because I was the girliest girl ever. I’m always dressed, and my hair is always done. That was my favorite memory of him taking me there. My other favorite memory was seen brushing my hair. I had incredibly curly hair, and no one could do it. Just grandpa could do it. He sometimes spent 30 minutes or so brushing my hair, so it didn’t hurt, and then he told me stories.
He was magnificent. He was always telling me that I could do whatever I wanted to do, which at the time, I could not understand. He kept telling me, “You must have your own money.” I remember him telling me this, “You have to be independent. You can do whatever you want to do. Whatever any man can do, you can do.” He was way advanced for his age in his time.
The fact that it’s still a patriarchal society, at the time, I did not realize that it was telling me this because I was a girl. I was big on I have to be independent and having my own money. I remember that all the time. “You have to have your own money.” We do different gender studies and stories that pretend to have equality and gender equity and all that good stuff. One thing that prevents women worldwide from being equal is that they don’t have access to their funds. His message was always inspirational and filled with hope. It was the money thing that, even as a child, I could not understand. “Why would he tell me about my money?”
It was very pragmatic. It’s stuck. Your mother ran a pub. Do you drink beer? What’s your favorite beer?
I’m a once-in-a-six-month alcoholic beverage person. I would say that the Blue Moon would be my beverage of choice if we’re talking beer. Some beer drinkers would disagree. That’s even a beer. If I don’t have a social event in one year, I probably wouldn’t touch alcohol in a year. I would say Blue Moon with some orange.
What is one part about the state of Arizona and experience or a place that has brought you great joy and why?
I live in Florida but always go to Arizona because of my work. Out of all my travels, Sedona is the most spiritual place that I’ve ever encountered. I am not a paid agent by the tourist agency in Sedona, but I recommend to all of your readers to go to Sedona at least once. I know people usually go to Grand Canyon. I’m sure it’s terrific. The Red Rock of Sedona is the most amazing spiritual place. It’s a place to meditate and reflect. That is my top place in the whole world. You asked about Arizona because of the University.
It’s peaceful and quiet. Even though it’s touristy, you can find a spot where you are all alone. Looking at the Red Rocks and the sun’s reflection on those red rocks, there’s something incredibly peaceful. It’s such a good place for reflection. It’s an amazing beauty. You’re looking at those rocks and saying, “I cannot believe that nature created this.” It is very spiritual. It’s very hard to pinpoint why. There is something there.
What is your definition of leadership?
I’m very closely aligned with the concept of servant leadership. I will expand this by saying that empathetic leadership is what I think is at the very core. Unless you have empathy and an understanding of what others are, what they’re bringing to the table, and their aspirations, dreams, or goals, it’s incredibly hard to lead.
One of the first things I’ve done as a Dean is doing these focus groups with my faculty. It’s a very small group. Not that there’s anything incredibly innovative, but I just want to meet my faculty. It’s not practical to do it on a one-on-one basis all the time because of the numbers, but I try to lead them in groups of 3 or 4. We touch upon work, but we’re steering away from work, getting to know each other, telling each other stories about our lives, understanding where we’re coming from, what motivates us, and what our passions are.
I also ask them, “What are some of your areas of passion that we’re not utilizing? Or you have never shared with us, and we don’t even understand that this may be an area you want to go into?” Having that level of understanding of others, I did much research on perception and understanding what I’m projecting. I’m trying for people to see and understand where they’re coming from and what they’re perceiving as I interact with them; these are the other things I’m actively working on.
A sense of empathy, there are a lot of studies talking about female versus male leadership. “If you do XY Z, you will be perceived as weak versus strong, assertive.” I don’t care about those labels because if people trust you and if you truly care because you cannot fake caring, they’re more likely to be motivated.
In every team I was a part of, I got people to do things, sometimes even more difficult things, and then spend more hours because of how I approached them. I’m the polar opposite of what one considers a micromanager. That style only works for a short period. What happens when people say they can get the job done for a very short period?
How would you define bold leadership? Why do you think bold leadership is relevant?
Our university went through a lot of uncertainties in the last few years, and global society working for many uncertainties. Leadership is making decisions that sometimes are not popular for the betterment of the entire organization. More leadership is standing firm within your decision-making process but being able to explain it. Bold leadership is polite. I don’t believe in any crazy discourse where you’re arguing with someone. Still, I would say professionally and politely explain your stance and stay firm, not changing your views or opinions because, for whatever reason, someone’s going after it.
As long as you have all the facts boldly, I should also make decisions with the facts to back you up and research. I don’t believe in gut-feeling leadership approaches. Can gut feeling be helpful once or twice? Sure. I get uncomfortable with leaders that are winging it 24/7. They may get lucky, but they may not. That’s an uncertainty that I’m not willing to subscribe to necessarily.
How relevant is bold leadership?
I don’t know of a period when bold leadership wasn’t relevant. I don’t want to go into US politics, but I will touch upon it briefly or in general terms. We no longer have bold leaders. Everyone is thinking about the next election cycle and pleasing their constituents. I’m still craving to see one person that steers away from everyone else and leave. There is a crisis when it comes to the concepts of bold leadership. Bold leadership was always relevant, but when you think about global leaders, there’s not one single one that is to the point that can lead this world. No one is as inspirational, strong, and bold. You don’t have a clear (world) leader.
Perhaps, it’s up to all of us. I’m hopeful that they will emerge. To the point you made near the beginning, you encourage your students and stuff that often it’s about impacting your community and sphere of influence. Who would have thought that a rural village boy in the Mvezo valley, in the Southern tip of the African continent, would go on to be one of the greatest iconic leaders of all time?
We never know their origins, but it is about collective leadership. I love what you said about making that impact within your sphere of influence. We are empowered. We can take that bold stand in communities where it matters. You’re doing it so well.
I look forward to learning and hearing more about the research. Your stories are empowering.
In our final moments, are there any final thoughts you have about leading boldly into the future? What you would like to say to our generation and the next?
You cannot lead boldly without having passion. Often, people mix up the concept of leadership with the concept of their daily jobs. If your passion matches your job and you can do what you’re passionate about in the venues of your job, you are incredibly fortunate. To be bold, you have to believe in what you’re doing. You have to have an incredible passion for what you’re doing. Hopefully, one would hope you’re doing it for the good. You can define how everyone’s lives are at least slightly better from encountering you.
Sometimes, like you, and when we met, I felt energized talking to you. We’re all in this pursuit of this incredible human experience. Thanks to the online setting, being able to do all these webinars, Zoom, and stuff. We’re able to encounter individuals worldwide in normal situations. Before this, we wouldn’t be able to. You’re expanding your horizons. That was one of the things that my grandfather would always ask me after school.
I never told you that he always smiled when he saw me. I never remember him not smiling when he saw me. It was such a welcome. He would say to me, “What have you learned today?” I will tell him what I’ve learned. He said, “What can you do to help others with what you have learned?” Don’t think that I was answering poetically, “We learned about cells in Biology.” “What can you do with them?” I’m like, “I have no idea.” I don’t want you to think those were these conversations where I always had a wonderful answer if he had this wonderful question.
“What am I going to do with this knowledge of cells? They were gross.” I remember saying that because I was never attracted to the medical profession. I respect medical professionals, but you could tell early on that there’s ‘no medical doctor in me.’ I often ask my students, “What’s your job versus your passion? What are the intersections of your job and your passion? What can you do to make your community better? What can you do to make your neighborhood better?” If you think in those terms, everything you do is incredibly rewarding, then you can be a bold leader.
When we put a leadership label, this is important because I tell my students this, you don’t have to have a title of a leader to lead. Going back to my refugee years, I remember a gentleman who was incredibly important to me. He passed. He was the leader of that center. No one gave him the title of center leader, but we would all come to him asking him questions. He would make decisions about heating, getting supplies, and allocating them. He was a bold leader, out of our respect towards him.
As I was getting married, he was the one that took me out of the center. He was serving this role as a father. He was the father of all the young girls and boys at the center. He had a very quiet voice. I don’t recall him ever raising his voice. He demanded and commanded respect through his actions and our level of trust because we always knew if he gave us advice, it would be advice given to better our lives. He was never self-serving.
I will always remember him. That is a bold leader to me. Sometimes we mix these terms’ bold,’ equally with ‘fierce,’ assertive, and strong. That’s not always the case. Mandela was a bold leader with that same soothing presence, soft-spoken demeanor, and kindness. To me, that is the boldest in the world, as far as leadership.
It’s been such a joy to talk to you. You join their category of one of the boldest of the bold. Thank you for sharing your passion with us. I’m so excited about all the work we will be doing together. Thank you so much.
Thank you so much, Anne. I appreciate it.
Our riveting conversation with the Forbes School of Business and Technology Dean and Dr. Maya Zelihic reveals a remarkable story of tragedy, of triumph, a road less traveled, and an unexpected fate. Friday, April 6th, 1992, a deadly war broke out in Bosnia, Herzegovina, part of the former Federation of States in the former Yugoslavia in Southeastern Europe. It was also the date that Maya experienced her most beautiful and last day in high school in the capital city of Sarajevo. A boy she liked complimented her on her fine performance in the final dress rehearsal of their high school play, a well-rehearsed role she never got to perform.
Her pivotal moment was when her beloved grandfather, her champion, her cheerleader, watched the troops of separatist competing nationalist forces march into the city. Their boots crunching on the cobbled streets. He said, “My country is dead.” In just five days, Maya and her family lost their home. Their family were separated. Intruders raped the women, and deadly deaths of men, women, and children lined the streets. 100,000 killed and 2 million more fled.
Globally in the world now, around 3.5% of an 8 billion human population that is around 218 million people are desperately displaced by warring conflicts, by climate crises, and by people experiencing shortages of water and famine. Good people like Maya in search of food and shelter and safety, and who want to build a better future.
In Maya’s own words, she was one of the fortunate ones. She escaped the deadly war. She went west. She spent three years in an Austrian refugee camp, and with the help of the Lutheran Church, she made her way to the United States of America. Many lawful immigrant refugees like Maya, work hard, embrace a new culture, and rise to the top. She held on 6 to 7 jobs. She celebrated Thanksgiving. She interconnected and connected with everyday American people at work, at church, and in her neighborhood.
Let’s face the unvarnished truth. Any one of us could face a similar unexpected fate. A refugee is a refugee, anyone from any land at any time. The United States of America, like multiple nations, have been built on the grit, the hard work, and the rise to the top of lawful immigrant refugees. It is time for us to refocus, to focus more on those in power who are creating these global mass migrations rather than fearing and demonizing lawful immigrant refugees like Dean and Dr. Maya Zelihic. Until next time, remember that leading boldly is about making thoughtful, clear choices. Bold leadership is about taking bold action, just one small step at a time. One step for you, but together, a giant step for humanity. Take care and take thoughtful, bold action.
- Maya Zelihic – LinkedIn
- Center for Women’s Leadership
- https://www.YouTube.com/watch?v=owrxU99rJ_E – 125: Dr. Maja Zelihic | Leading Digital Education Around The World!
About Dr. Maya Zelihic
Dr. Maja Zelihic is a Dean at the Forbes School of Business and Technology at the University of Arizona Global Campus. She is a Fulbright Specialist, Full Professor, and a GLOBE Researcher. Before performing her Dean duties, Dr. Zelihic, FSBT’s Advanced Management Studies Department Chair, oversees three programs(MBA, BA in Leadership, Ph. D in Organizational Development and Leadership) and the Center for Women’s Leadership. She is also working on the launch of the first UAGC international doctoral program. Dr. Zelihic is the Chair of the FSBT’s Board of advisors. She has a Ph.D. in Organizational Management, an MBA, and MA in Organizational Leadership and Development.
She is currently serving her Fulbright tenure, having completed one project as a primary investigator and one as a co-investigator. Furthermore, she is a GLOBE research project Country-Co-Investigator, making her contributions to the unique large-scale study of cultural practices, leadership ideals, and interpersonal trust GLOBE currently conducts in 160 countries. She served as a Global Dialogue Partner for two years at NAFSA, Association of International Educators, the world’s largest and most diverse nonprofit association dedicated to international education and exchange. Dr. Zelihic serves on the Board of Advisors of the International Fellowship Program in Arbitration and Scientific Assessment, the comprehensive global academic review platform. Before joining UAGC (Ashford University in 2013), Dr. Zelihic worked in the consumer financial services market, performing various roles for a private label provider servicing major financial companies, such as Merrill Lynch, Charles Schwab, USAA, Keybank, and some others.
Dr. Zelihic has been published in over 20+ peer-reviewed journals. Her research ventures took her to Haiti, Iceland, England, Cuba, Mexico, Panama, Jordan, Zambia, the Balkan (South East Europe) region, and many other parts of the world. Her chapter in the international research handbook published by Francis and Taylor in 2022 provides a comprehensive overview of her international research experiences across the globe. Dr. Zelihic co-authored a book on Perception, released in December 2020, and co-created a perception index, an assessment designed to help companies and individuals recognize the variables impacting their perceptions and correlate it to motivation effectiveness and successful global leadership. She was named one of the top 200 leaders to follow by PeopleHum in 2021. Dr. Zelihic was named Global 100 Inspirational Leaders by Global Leaders Today. Dr. Zelihic resides in Florida with her husband, son, and daughter.