The Deb Ganderton Oration – IABC Victoria

by Oct 21, 2022

 “Deb – hello! Long-time no hear… how are you? What are you up to now?”

Darling I’m in real estate.

“Oh really? Did not see that coming…

Yes, I have the largest portfolio of land in Melbourne and people are dying to get their hands on it!

And so was my introduction to Deb in the guise of leadership team of GMCT – the Greater Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust.

Such was the wicked humour and outrageousness of the Deb I knew.

Tonight, you have heard a few more vignettes and I think it is telling that there is diversity in the language used to describe Deb.

It prompts the question for me – What is the leadership legacy you wish to leave?

In my view Deb left a legacy of energy, enthusiasm, intellect, passion, irreverence, and humour. I recall saying to one of the change team at GMCT – Deb is the ideal change agent. You just wind her up and point her in the right direction, and she will go hard. She has courage in spades.

I recall back in the day, one Adrian Cropley used to sit with the incoming IABC Chapter Presidents and ask them what is the leadership legacy you wish to leave? It was such an important question and really valuable in helping volunteers define the boundaries of their commitment, their expectations and their “true north”. As I entered into my presidency, I had objectives of disruption and growth, we had gone through a period of building the stability and corporatisation of the association so there were processes and policies in place. It had created a platform for growth, and I wanted to honour my Past president by taking that work and expanding.

 The question ‘what legacy do you want to leave’ is not so much about your achievements, but your character – how you inspire others to do more, to do greater, and make changes.

There used to be an exercise I would run with C-Suite leaders. I would ask them to write the speech they wanted to hear at their retirement. Many times, the first attempt would be a pretty ordinary first draft. It focused more on the flaws, and weaknesses, and yet with encouraging version control and attention to self-limiting beliefs it would end up a powerful exercise.

Two weeks ago, I was fortunate to attend the reflection of Prime Minister Gillard’s #NOTNOWNOTEVER misogyny speech at Hamer Hall. And while the keynote from Gillard was stirring, it was the other 9 speakers who really unpacked her legacy in quite vivid and moving ways.

So now I think the activity to run is not write what you want people to say at your retirement speech, but perhaps write what you want people to say after you have stuck it to Tony Abbot in parliament?

In reflecting on the many tributes and descriptions you have heard tonight and on of course social media in the time since Deb has passed, there is opportunity to do these exercises. And here’s the thing, you don’t have to be in a C-Suite role to do it, or some-one in the public eye. You lead teams, families, social groups and in community. You lead yourself.

It’s simply an invitation to be 10% more intentional in how you want to be remembered.

The 10% more is important, this is not a call to great action or momentous change.

A legacy is built moment, by moment. If in writing your retirement letters, your parliamentary rebuttals it seems a struggle, perhaps you are getting a bad edit, take heart you have so many moments yet to still draft. Small moments. Small edits prompted by the questions:

How are you showing up?

What are you contributing?

How do your values play out in the day to day?

And the really tough one – how do you matter?

You have opportunities to change all of these answers today. This last question speaks to the power of purpose. And hasn’t that been a topic of conversation at drinks with your besties for however long. “But what is my purpose? What am I here to do?” And do I really need a life coach to uncover it?

I would suggest not, thought it could be helpful for some.

Purpose emerges when you are still enough to hear the internal whispers of deep longing, deep knowing and deep rebellion – “I’d really love to do”, – what I should be doing”, “that’s not me, that’s not what I could be doing”.  This is the internal monologue that helps y9u identify and articulate purpose. it is quiet that is your friend. This is not the question that needs a perfect answer, if you are still enough, your first answer will be sufficient to make the changes that people will talk about later.  

So, stillness and quiet

Small moments and actions that align with purpose.

These are the conditions to build a leadership legacy that you wish to be remembered by.

Tonight, in conversations over drinks share one thing that comes up for you in how you would like to be remembered – and how that might align with purpose. Don’t over think it.

Of course, leaving a leadership legacy also implies a focus on whole-hearted leadership.

What does it mean to lead from the heart?

If you do a google on the topic leadership legacy, you’re going to find a fairly consistent small sub-set of adjectives: compassion, integrity, trusted and authentic.

Which I think is a shame. As there are SO many more adjectives you may choose to embrace Ironically to strive for compassion, integrity and trust in isolation of your other character strengths may render you inauthentic. It’s quite the paradox of social conformity!

This is in part that we have tended to romanticise the concept of leading from the heart. It means we have focused on leading with compassion, integrity, trust and sure, let’s add courage, vulnerability and of course empathy into the mix. Those qualities are 100% important, admirable and make for an outstanding leader.

However, from a psychological perspective, wholehearted means integration of all aspects of self. Authenticity is a quest towards whole – so an integration, examination, and acceptance of all of our aspects of self. This is reflected in the sense that’s some-one is inauthentic when they show us only part of who they are. I think it is more useful to have an inclusive conversation of ALL the emotions that influence our leadership that come from the heart

 To this end Deb, was a wholehearted leader in full. She owned that she was not especially strong on empathy in the workplace. That’s what she paid other people to do for her!

In my role as change management consultant to GMCT, I was called in to discuss an impending organisational restructure. Once the attendees of the meeting left, I could see Deb was troubled. Something had been left unsaid. I asked – Deb, what is your greatest fear?

She took a pause, a deep breath, and she looked me in the eye and said, “that they won’t like me for the changes I am about to make”.

Shame is an emotion that is born of three fears.

  1. Fear of irrelevance
  2. Fear of not being liked or loved
  3. Fear of not being worthy.

A leaders’ legacy is often underpinned with how they deal with the natural response to fear of not being worthy, loved or relevant.

A couple of years ago, I was fortunate to do a workshop with Christopher Germer, one of the leading researchers on self-compassion and shame.

Germer defines shame as the emotion that arises when we believe we are too flawed to be loved and accepted by others. He explains: 

  • Shame feels blameworthy, but it is an innocent.
  • Shame feels isolating, but it is a universal.
  • Shame feels permanent and all-encompassing, but it is transitory, like all emotions, and it is a burden carried by only part of who we are.

 I think it is the first paradox that underscores most of what we see as shame responses in organisational change. Shame is an innocent. It is born of the desire to be loved and to be seen as worthy of love. 

 To translate this – we see leaders, who think that their peers, the media, their employees are critical of them, and they are not worthy of love. 

We see people being asked to do things differently which may mean that they are clumsy, and not performing like they usually do, and this risks people not loving them anymore.

 Brene Brown, professor, author and researcher of shame resilience about the biggest shame trigger being fear of irrelevance. 

 How many organisational leaders have charted a course of change out of fear of irrelevance and demonstrated in a kind of institutional ‘me too-ism’ – “ANZ is going agile, us too!” 

 Closer to home, I probably couldn’t count the times I’ve used General Eric Shinseki’s quote “If you think you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less”.


When leaders experience these fears, they often suffer from the amygdala hijack – fight, flight or freeze. And so perhaps, unsurprisingly, we see leaders of change disengaging from the work that needs to be done, unable to make decisions, and acting hostile when provided with feedback. And in leadership this can look like bullying, blaming and baffling with bullshit.

We see employees taking more sick days, stuck in a state of uncertainty, or pushing back overtly on the change.  

Toxic leadership is the manifestation of leadership from a wounded heart.

 Dr. Dan Siegel coined the phrase, name it to tame it. Psychologist David Rock states, “when you experience significant internal tension and anxiety, you can reduce stress by up to 50% by simply noticing and naming your state.”.

In her research Brene Brown tell us there are four steps to responding to shame screens:

  • Recognizing, naming, and understanding our (internal) shame triggers.
  • Identifying external factors that led to the feelings of shame.
  • Connecting with others to receive and offer empathy.
  • Speaking about our feelings of shame with others.

 Now there is a difference between blame and self-judgment and accountability and ownership.

Deb owned that she was fearful of not being liked, she owner that she was not especially high on empathy – and in doing so was able to be a better leader for it.

There has never been a greater call for emotional literacy.

“The limits of my language mean the limits  of my  world.”- Ludwig  Wittgenstein

We are as a society remarkably imprecise and constrained with language. In her new book the Atlas of the Heart, Brene Brown shares that in surveys taken by 7,000 people over five years, her team found that on average people can identify only three emotions as they are actually feeling them:

What do you think they are?

happiness, sadness, and anger. 

In the book she goes on to unpack 87 emotions that you would be familiar with. And in expanding your emotional vocabulary you are in a stronger position to ‘tame’ the emotion that threatens to send your amygdala into overdrive and show up as toxic leadership.

It is said the sunlight is the greatest disinfectant, and while this is often invoked in defence of free speech, When we are prepared to speak openly of our relationship to all the emotions that are processed from our ‘heart’ we limit the power of the shadow emotions of leadership such a fear, envy, grief, loneliness and shame.

Part of this relationship is to acknowledge the benefit that these darker emotions have. Fear reminds us to be attentive to risk management and not be cavalier with other people’s livelihoods. Envy acts as a trigger for defining what an aspirational state looks like – what are we shooting for? Grief is a called to acknowledge the value of what has been lost and attentive to not creating additional loss. Loneliness can be a catalyst for creating community, and shame is our opportunity to be kind to ourselves. So wholehearted leadership means acknowledging ALL emotions and being attentive to the implications, not ignoring or suppressing.

 What do you have to do to be a little bit greater in your leadership?

And speaking of emotions in leadership, Deb was an exceptionally proud woman, and so incredibly proud of being a communicator that had made it to the top office, that of the CEO. She had the Big Seat at the table!

It is a conversation that has dominated many a network gathering of business communicators – how do you get a seat at the table? I suspect Deb and I were cut of the same cloth in response to this question – if you have to ask, you’re not ready. Just walk up and pull the chair out. Which is what Deb did at GMCT.

Pulling out the chair of CEO was in part owing to her commitment to ambition but also unwavering belief in herself. Deb was continuously focused on what it took to be a little bit greater in her leadership.

When the role of CEO came up, Deb went to extraordinary lengths to build a case or an application for her suitability to the role. It involved a forensic dissection of her strengths and weakness (so the wholehearted approach) and who in her network could support her in her quest. There was determination and hunger in her approach.

And so again, in hindsight, there is a gift in this reflection. A question we can all take on board. What do you have to do be a little bit greater in your leadership?

Clearly, self-awareness will assist here – but this is where the power of professional associations come in. we are living in a time of ‘new power’ – Where those who are the strongest, the most successful, do so not by virtue of the solo hero, but with the power of connections, or relationships and community.

There will be no Bronze Quill winners accepting awards for their solo work.

Look around you tonight. You are stronger than you know.

It will be the identification of what it takes to be a little bit greater that will result in more small moments that build a legacy.

It will be the willingness to receive and offer empathy to others that help you deal with shame screens that might get in the way of creating the leadership legacy you wish to lead.

I would ask you to tonight to consider what is the leadership legacy that you want to leave? How do all of your emotions play a role in that?

And in acknowledging that wholehearted inclusive self-reflection, what it is you do to be a little bit greater in your leadership?

  • Small moments
  • Intentional action
  • Being quiet enough to listen
  • Being inclusive of all emotions that come up.
  • Self-kindness
  • And in the company of good people.

I look forward to hearing your retirement speeches, or seeing you stick it to misogynistic politicians.  

Mindfulness is simply a conduit to better data processing


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