First Woman Thunderbird Pilot, Combat Veteran, White House Fellow & Adviser, and Indomitable Spirit
A 21-year veteran of the United States Air Force, Colonel Nicole Malachowski (USAF, Ret.) wanted to fly military jets from the moment she saw them at her first air show when she was five years old. She achieved that goal – and then some. A leader, a combat veteran, the first woman pilot on the Thunderbirds Air Demonstration Squadron, an instructor, a White House Fellow, and an inductee into the Women in Aviation International Pioneer Hall of Fame, Nicole’s Air Force career exceeded her wildest dreams. Read More >
Becoming Thunderbirds Pilot
Harnessing Headwinds of Change
Learning to Walk and Talk Again
In flying, headwinds slow you down. At their worst, they cause you to change your plans and impact the effectiveness of weapons in combat. Headwinds demand that pilots be resilient and resourceful, literally on the fly. “Headwinds are the perfect metaphor for the change impacting organizations and individuals today,” says 21-year Air Force veteran Nicole Malachowski. A former fighter squadron commander and mission-ready pilot in three operational fighter squadrons and the first woman to fly on the Air Force Thunderbirds, Nicole has the perfect message to inspire audiences to think differently about the headwinds of change they face – organizationally and personally. Drawing on her extraordinary Air Force career, Nicole tailors her talk to suit each audience – offering lessons on leadership, followership, and overcoming adversity. Nicole weaves storytelling with breathtaking video from the cockpit of her jet as the Thunderbirds execute precision turns, rolls, and loops – all just 36” from one another at 400 mph just 300 feet off the ground. A passionate speaker, Nicole’s keynote has an unforgettable message to kick off or close any event. She helps audiences ignite their own indomitable spirit in order to succeed far beyond what they can dream. “Failure isn’t fatal,” she says, “it’s the price of entry if you want to achieve something great.”
The best organizations and leaders create cultures that engage and harness the diverse ideas, talents, and abilities of every person; one where challenging assumptions and the status quo drives extraordinary success. Nicole Malachowski knows about high-performance cultures and challenging assumptions. As a member of the elite United States Air Force Thunderbirds flying demonstration team, the first woman to do so, Nicole was part of a team that demanded flawless execution under extreme circumstances because lives literally depended on it. Yet, it would be wrong to define Nicole by simply labeling her the first woman Thunderbird pilot – and that’s the point. In order to create a culture that challenges assumptions, it’s important to look beyond the obvious. In Nicole’s case, the Thunderbirds were just two years of an exceptional 21-year Air Force career during which she became a White House Fellow and adviser, served at the Department of Defense, was a mission-ready pilot in three operational squadrons and a fighter squadron commander, and served as a combat pilot. As an Air Force leader, Nicole constantly challenged assumptions by matching people’s values with the job to be done. In this talk, Nicole draws on her distinguished career to offer inspiring lessons for leaders and followers.
Nicole Malachowski has lived a life of service to others. Her commitment to making a difference was the foundation of a distinguished 21-year Air Force career and it continues to drive her work as an advocate on health care and veterans’ issues. First as a White House Fellow in the General Services Administration and later as the executive director of Joining Forces, a nationwide initiative launched by First Lady Michelle Obama and Dr. Jill Biden, Nicole rallied around service members, veterans, and their families and supported them through wellness, education, and employment opportunities. When a health crisis unexpectedly ended her military career, Nicole viewed this as an opportunity to cultivate a new perspective. She is now making a difference in places she never expected – including healthcare – where she works closely with patients and their medical practitioners to find ways to focus on the whole person and not just the illness being treated. In this presentation, Nicole inspires audiences with her candor, authenticity, and humor, encouraging them to bring humanity back into their own work and make a difference in the lives of those around them.
"Days later I am still thinking about you and the unforgettable talk you gave to close our leadership conference. To say it was the highlight of an already exceptional conference would simply be an understatement. You touched so many people with not only your story, but the very essence of who you are as human being. You are a unique mixture of charm, vulnerability, humble strength and resilience…many of us in the audience, including myself, aspire to be more like you. You left us all with the gifts of inspiration and motivation…exactly what we needed to end a conference that was focused on driving performance and connections."
“You are a spectacular speaker and I have never been to a meeting with our entire team mesmerized by anyone like they were with you. Your story is unbelievable and you are able to deliver it in such a natural and powerful way that had me in awe for days after. I haven’t been so motivated or inspired by anyone in a long time."
“My team couldn’t have been more pleased to work with you. Your message of perseverance, determination, and overcoming roadblocks was incredibly moving and inspiring. Our group of hoteliers and developers embraced your courage, and your path resonated with the myriad of challenges we face in our industry. I was especially impressed when you joined us the day before, sat through our meetings, got to know various people, and mentioned them during your talk! I have to say that never before have I had our group rise and give a standing ovation to a guest speaker and then be asked to return to the stage for ongoing applause!”