Leadership and service are in Colonel Jill Morgenthaler’s blood. Raised in a military family, Colonel Jill was taught she could be whatever she wanted to be—not something young women coming of age in the 1960s often heard. She took to that to heart and then trail blazed her way through 30 years of military service, traveling the world and earning both the Legion of Merit and the Bronze Star.
In honor of Veteran’s Day, we asked the retired Colonel and leadership speaker on Thumbtack to share her military story, her experience as an inspirational speaker, and her suggestions for truly honoring the veterans in your life.
Colonel Jill overcame obstacles early in her military career. When she joined the ROTC in 1972, it was part of an experimental program to desegregate men and women in the army—they would be working side by side as equals for the first time ever. The change was not warmly received. When she attended boot camp with 82 other women and 500 male cadets on a military base of 50,000 men she contended with intimidation, name-calling, and threats. Undaunted, she drew on the knowledge that she was capable and that the army offered her opportunities the typical “female” careers of the day—teacher, secretary, nurse—could not. She quickly learned to be assertive and use humor to stay strong.
A year after graduating from Penn State University on full scholarship, Colonel Jill was deployed to the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. Unexpectedly thrust into a leadership role at age 22 heading a company of men, she had to own her leadership and demonstrate to all those watchful eyes that a woman was capable of leading in combat. “That’s one thing about the military,” she says, “it taught me to embrace obstacles. It taught me how to grow and show the world what I was made of.”
Her military career has taken her from Korea and Germany to Bosnia and Iraq. Two key leadership tools she’s developed are being assertive and using her sense of humor. She made one cheeky Sergeant who wasn’t saluting her as his superior practice his salute for five minutes in front of her. It was playful, but also sent the message to him and others watching that she was to be treated with due respect. After one year in Korea, she spent the late 70s and early 80s in Berlin where she commanded two units in the height of the Cold War.
Face-to-Face with Saddam Hussein
That women with important careers can also raise families is a strong message that Colonel Jill conveys as a leadership speaker. “Women are hungry to learn from other successful women who were also mothers and wives,” she explains. She achieved her family goals after she left active duty and joined the Army Reserves. Being in the reserves didn’t stop her from service though, as she served in Bosnia and then Iraq as a full Colonel running public affairs.
Military service taught Colonel Jill how to identify problems and rise to overcome challenges. In Iraq, she came face to face with Saddam Hussein outside the courtroom for his trial. In court, when he had realized he wasn’t going to be executed on the spot, he regained his arrogant attitude, and began making death threats to the judge and all those present. Leaving the courtroom, Hussein encountered Colonel Jill in her civilian clothes (the U.S. Military role there was transitioning to Iraqi leadership) and was visually, “stripping me straight to my Victoria Secrets,” she says. Refusing to be intimidated by this man, she stared straight back, conveying with her posture and direct stare what she thought of him. Enraged, he yelled, “Kill her!” in Arabic, which was his former way of handling any dissent.
Service to her country didn’t stop after retiring from the military. Colonel Jill served as Illinois’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Public Safety and Homeland Security Advisor from 2005-2007—the first female to ever hold that position. She then ran for U.S. Congress, and after not winning that race wrote a book titled, “The Courage to Take Command: Leadership Lessons from a Military Trailblazer.” You just can’t keep her down.
Inspiration and Leadership
These life experiences paved the way for her new career. Since 2013, she’s made her living as an international leadership and inspirational speaker and now uses Thumbtack to reach a larger audience. One month on Thumbtack landed an engagement with BP.
She targets three main categories in her talks 1) Leadership, 2) Powerful Presence for Women—how women can project themselves with confidence and get what they deserve, and, 3) Resilience—how to increase resilience while leading people. In Austin, she just spoke to 1,500 wealth managers on the topic of persistence and facing challenges in the face of regulations in technology. Whether in Dubai or Boston, she shapes each talk to each new audience, all the while instilling the leadership lessons she learned in her military career. She explains, “people are hungry to learn from Americans about success in business.”
Honoring Our Veterans
Colonel Jill served our country from 1976-2006. “I’m very blessed to have seen so much of the world,” she says. We asked her, what can we do to honor those we know who are veterans or actively serving our country?
“A lot of people say, ‘I support the veterans.’ But it’s far better to take action. Hire a veteran to do the job. Treat a veteran to a cup of coffee. Even the simple act of asking them to share their story means so much. Especially Vietnam veterans, they came back to a society that had turned it’s back on them. Recently a friend of mine thanked a Vietnam vet for his service and the vet started to cry because no one had thanked him before. Investing time in these people is how you can honor them.”
See Colonel Jill’s dynamic leadership advice in action via her TEDx Talk.
[Photos via Colonel Jill Morgenthaler; top photo: Colonel Jill speaking at a Greater Chicago Women’s Leadership Summit]