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20 questions with… Leo Johnson



Leo Johnson answers 20 questions on life, sustainability and everything.

Johnson is a sustainability expert and a partner at global consulting firm PwC, following the acquisition of the company he set up, Sustainable Finance.

He recently co-authored a book for Oxford University Press called Turnaround Challenge: Business & the City of the Future. To get your hands on a copy signed by Johnson himself, see Blue & Green Tomorrow’s latest competition.

We want the world to be as blue and green tomorrow as it was yesterday. What’s your mission?

Maybe it’s to have a bit less of a sense of mission, and live a good life.

When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I was very clear. I wanted to be a bureaucrat. I wanted to work for the UN or some other world-changing, global organisation. l was a sort of UKIP nightmare. I still love government.

How would your friends describe you?

I hope they think I’m not completely evil.

What was your ‘road to Damascus moment’ in terms of sustainability?

Reading EF Schumacher’s Good Work. Especially his story of the missing cow. Won’t spoil it for you. Summarised at the end of our book. Best lesson on how to live that I know.

Who or what inspires you?

I had the great luck to be making a film in the goldmines of Ecuador’s Andes last year and I came across the term ‘duende’. There’s no good translation. Mojo, voice, authenticity. The thing that gives you goosebumps at a performance of flamenco. The ‘dark sounds’, for the poet Lorca, that are the triumph of the artists truths over their lies. I am inspired by people who have got their duende going.

What really grinds your gears?

People lying, especially to themselves.

Describe your perfect day.

It’s blazing with sunshine. I drop my kids at school. Then have a long, good tasting coffee. Then have a session with our local group in Kilburn that is setting up a community energy project. Then get involved in some debate or speech with a set of brilliant people where I get to see something different. In the afternoon, a run and a bit of something creative. Then a movie out with my wife or a meal at home with my family and a couple of close friends.

What do you see when you look out your window at home?

I see the trees of Queen’s Park on one side. On the other, I see about 17 railway lines and hear the beautiful rumbles of the trains. Pendolinos, Overground. Underground. Nuclear train. They have all got their own rhythms.

What do you like spending your money on?

My wife is from Afghanistan, and she explained to me her view of money as someone whose family lost everything in the Russian invasion. At any point, you could lose everything, so live in the present. If you have some money spare to go on holiday, do it. It’s the opposite to how I was brought up.

What’s your favourite holiday destination?

We just went to the Italian Dolomites. It was absolutely beautiful. The air was amazing. Failing that, we have a family farm down in Somerset where my grandad was a farmer and we all grew up. I don’t get there enough.

What’s your favourite book?

I just read Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her. The guy can write.

What’s your favourite film?

We just saw an Italian film called La Grande Bellezza, or The Great Beauty. It was a staggeringly beautiful, lush description of decaying modern Rome. No idea what it meant. But want to see it again.

You’re made prime minister. What’s the first thing you do?

Shift subsidies from exercises in fossil fuel barrel-scraping like fracking into innovations that bring innovative, low-carbon manufacturing jobs back to Britain. No?

If you were stuck on a desert island, which famous person would you like to be stuck with and why?

Marilyn Monroe. Why? Her optimism. Plus, we could use her white dress as a sort of shared hammock.

What was the best piece of advice you have ever been given? And the worst?

A Greek architect once quoted me a Spanish proverb. He said, “If you’re meant to be a carpenter, the sky will rain down nails on your head.” The worst? This is tough. All of the real blunders have been my own doing. It took me a long time to realise that some of my worst regrets would be failures of kindness.

What would you like to be doing five years from now?

A whole lot of creative stuff.

What’s your biggest regret?

Fear, cowardice, wimping out, inertia.

What one thing would you encourage readers to do to make their life more sustainable?

You can get caught up in the dramatic illusion of the big. Or you can do the small and do it right.

What’s the one idea that you think could change the world for the better?

This is the era of the massive small; the small that resonates. We need to do the local with passion and force.

What’s your favourite quote?

Marilyn Monroe again: “Sometimes good things fall apart so that better things can take their place.”

Leo Johnson is a sustainability expert and a partner at global consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). His latest book, Turnaround Challenge, is now available from Oxford University Press.

Further reading:

Leo Johnson and the power of people

Book review: Turnaround Challenge by Michael Blowfield & Leo Johnson

Competition: win a copy of Turnaround Challenge signed by Leo Johnson


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