Magicians, warriors and wise sages – the universal and unique stories of public finance leaders

Alchemists create new stories

Alchemists create new stories

It’s been a great privilege for a storyteller like me to work with the Chartered Institute of Public Finance (CIPFA) as a Writer in Residence. Through the Voices project I’ve been immersed in a complex, challenging world with big numbers and courageous and – sometimes – glamorous public servants who rarely get their moment in the spotlight.

I’ve had the opportunity to look beyond the usual stereotypes, dig out stories that get to the heart of the human condition and tell tales that illustrate the gritty underbelly of the economic and political issues of the day. What’s stood out has been the fantastic, talented and infinitely varied people I’ve met as I’ve done this work.

To give you a flavour of the stories and people, I’m using the writer’s staple of Jungian character archetypes – the sub-conscious patterns or roles we play in society that go beyond personality to deeper character traits. They’re recognisable in all cultures, communities and public sector organisations.

There are alchemists in CIPFA who have the ability to turn stories of scarce resources into positive developments and generate real value. They are magicians who have also changed their own approach to leadership; Sean Pearce’s story of unleashing the power of the balance sheet, Andy Burn’s provocation about turning data into gold and Hamza Yusuf’s thought piece on re-casting old narratives into a pioneering transformative story for local government are all powerful examples.

The Visionaries make visible a deeper reality – and so shape the future. These include Chris Naylor, whose use of insight is driving a new form of organisation in Barking and Dagenham. The transformation of councils as platforms for creative change is envisaged by Leigh Whitehouse, who also talks about S151 officers pushing transformation further and faster. Donna Herdsman’s piece speaks of a world where diversity is mainstreamed and public finance benefits from a much wider pool of talented thinkers.

Amongst these CIPFA members I also recognised the Warrior archetype – the practical enforcers of what is right and those fighting to protect the public purse; George Clarke was a formidable force as a forensic auditor sniffing out fraudsters. There are Wise Sages, brave members highlighting the awkward truths about what we can and cannot afford as a nation. And well-argued pieces on NHS finance from Esther Giles and Bill Shields are well worth a read.

The Everyman character trait came through in Pam Dyson’s human story about pedestals, perfection and performance; none of us are perfect but we get out there and keep on making things work. I also loved the Advocates, in particular a couple of stories revealing CIPFA members as powerful champions of their place; Carole Mills in Milton Keynes and Mark Taylor in Wolverhampton. And busting another stereotype, Chris West is the Jester, demonstrating the importance of warm humour and sharp edges.

The Voices project was designed to increase influence, provoke debate and inform decision-making. The work has resulted in more than thirty articles, stories, blogs and flash fiction collaborations and over a hundred members attending creative thinking and writing workshops at CIPFA conferences – smashing another stereotypical view of dull, uncreative accountants.

These stories show great leadership, potential and opportunities everywhere to make change – and I think the characteristics that come to life in these stories could form an alternative person specification for future leaders.

And of course, the stories and people have influenced me too. Although we are more used to seeing city bankers in novels and films these days, (there’s even a recent successful Ben Affleck film called “The Accountant”) my new novel is probably the only thriller with a public finance chief as one of the main protagonists (more on that shortly!)

Finally a big thank you to all those who’ve contributed to the project and shared their stories, to Drew Cullen for the opportunity and to Saskia Black for all the help at the publishing end. It’s been an inspiring and enriching experience.

To read some of the pieces mentioned see:

And more info:

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