Trailblazer Shares Leadership Lessons from Her Remarkable Military Career

It’s easy to speak about Jill Morgenthaler and leadership in the same sentence.

When the now-retired U.S. Army colonel was a junior at Pennsylvania State University, she became one of the country’s first female ROTC cadets to train with men. At age 22, she was the first female company intelligence commander in Korea before becoming the army’s first female brigade commander in the 84th Division. And she was the first woman to oversee homeland security for the state of Illinois.

In her recent presentation at University of Maryland University College (UMUC), Morgenthaler, who holds the Legion of Merit and Bronze Star, spoke about what it takes for women to become decisive leaders, even during crises.

“There’s more than one way to be a leader,” said Morgenthaler. She told the gathering at the UMUC Academic Center at Largo Auditorium that leaders emerge when people are open to new experiences.

Morgenthaler shared personal anecdotes as she enumerated the lessons learned from on-the-ground experience in the military. The first lessons came during that 1972 ROTC program which, for the first time, trained young women alongside young men.

“They don’t want you. They’re going to try to break you down,” her father, a marine, warned before she headed off to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. “These men are coming after you to make you cry and to make you quit.”

But, he counseled her, “Quitting is not an option.”

Her father’s words rang true. “There were 83 women in that experimental class on a military post of 50,000 men,” Morgenthaler recalled. “They came after us—with a vengeance.”

She praised her drill sergeant for offering encouragement. Once, when a fear of heights caused her to freeze as she led a squad of men over a bridge, her sergeant gave her a choice: “You’re a warrior or a wimp.”

Prompting laughter from her UMUC audience, Morgenthaler said that experience taught her “frozen is not an option.”

She extolled the importance of teamwork. “There is no weakest link when you use everyone’s talents. Don’t hire people just like you. Hire someone who’s different.

“The wonderful thing about humanity is that we all have gifts. Your job [as a leader] is to find the gifts in everybody and bring them together,” she said.

At the same time, she asserted that women must be better about making their aspirations known and to take credit when they post successes.

Morgenthaler was involved in disaster recovery during the 1989 earthquake in San Francisco and, in 2004, she was the army’s press officer when news broke about servicemembers’ involvement in human rights abuses of detainees at the Abu Graib prison in Iraq.

She talked about the strategies she used, such as standing tall, to remain calm and resilient while under stress.

“Keep the smile, look straight ahead. This is the way to project confidence,” she said. “This is perfect for that difficult board meeting, for a conflict with the boss, for a job interview.”

She also described an encounter with deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. He was being escorted from court, where he was on trial for crimes against humanity, when he spotted Morgenthaler, a rare woman in civilian clothing among a sea of men. He leered. She responded by stepping forward and giving him her “bring it on” glare. Challenged, Hussein barked something in Arabic that she later learned meant “kill her.”

“I am proud to announce I am alive and well,” she said. “And the lesson is that no one can make you feel inferior unless you choose to. And the second lesson … is that a ‘bring it on’ attitude is going to get you a lot of things in life.”

She said leaders assemble a cluster of trusted people for advice and support when challenges arise. And good leaders, she added, stand up for the underdog.

In 2008, Morgenthaler made an unsuccessful run for a U.S. congressional seat in Illinois. In 2013, she recorded a Ted Talk; a year later she published a book, “The Courage to Take Command: Leadership Lessons from a Military Trailblazer.“ She does leadership presentations around the country and currently is working with a screenwriter to put her boot camp experiences into a TV miniseries.

Morgenthaler, whose sister Sharon is both an adjunct professor and the full-time Learning Product Manager for Learning Design & Solutions at UMUC, reminded women in the university community that they are making important accomplishments.

“You are all doing great things. You are making education so accessible to everyone. You are especially helping our young military people and our veterans,” she said. “When you feel bogged down, remember what you’re doing.”

Said Morgenthaler, there’s one other thing the audience should remember: Some days, the best person for the job is a woman.

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