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Matt Lindley 
A 360 Exclusive Interview

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Matt, it’s lovely to have you here with us this afternoon. Let’s start by diving into the key milestones of your professional journey.

 

Well, it's been quite the ride, hasn't it? My journey started back in my school days; I was a day school boarder and then moved on to sixth form, always harbouring this dream of becoming a pilot. But, you know, dreams and reality don't always align – my family wasn't in a position to financially support that dream. So, I took a slightly different path initially, heading off to Birmingham University to study Commerce. While there, I got involved with the Royal Air Force's University Air Squadron, more out of curiosity than a concrete plan to join, especially considering I was wrestling with how my sexuality would fit into that world.

But something clicked during those university years and, by the end of it, I just knew I had to give the RAF a shot, despite not getting in straight away. In the meantime, I landed a spot on Ford Motor Company's marketing graduate scheme, where I somehow ended up working with Japanese management consultants on implementing their management techniques in the motor industry – quite the detour, right?

Eventually, the RAF came calling again, and in '95, I found myself embarking on what I can only describe as the adventure of a lifetime. Officer training led me down the fast jet path, culminating in earning my wings as a fighter pilot. However, balancing my private life with the intensifying demands of the role proved challenging, and I hit a significant setback when I didn't make it through what you might call the RAF's version of Top Gun.

But every cloud has its silver lining, and mine was getting selected for the Royal Squadron in '99, where I spent a fantastic decade. I even dabbled in training undergraduates at Oxford University for a bit before taking charge of training back at the Royal Squadron. Eventually, sensing it was time for a new chapter, I transitioned to a commercial airline, flying short haul initially before moving to the long-haul fleet, piloting the iconic 747 and later the 777.

Parallel to my flying career, I've been nurturing my business, Propel Performance, leveraging the lessons and skills I've accumulated over the years to help others excel under pressure. It's been a journey of constant juggling, learning, and, most importantly, growing, both personally and professionally.

 

You've dedicated a decade of your life to Propel Performance. What’s it all about and what’s its core focus?

 

Propel Performance kicked off with a focus on the NHS, where we applied aviation's deck management strategies to minimise human errors in hospitals and surgeries. It's fascinating how the protocols we follow in the skies can be transformative on the ground, especially in high-stakes environments like healthcare.

Since then, we've expanded our reach to essentially any sector grappling with high-pressure situations. Our aim is to empower those who are both under pressure and those who apply it, enhancing their leadership skills and decision-making capabilities when the heat is on. The pharmaceutical sector, in particular, has been a significant area of focus for us.

In addition to running these specialised workshops, I also deliver keynotes that fall under the Propel Performance umbrella. These presentations distil the essence of what we do, offering insights and strategies that can be applied across various industries.

As for the size of Propel, we're a tight-knit team. I'm at the helm full-time, steering the ship, but I've got a fantastic crew of five consultants I bring in as needed. They're all aviators or have some aviation background, which adds a unique perspective to our approach. Depending on the project or the specific needs of our clients, I'll call on their expertise to ensure we deliver top-notch, tailored solutions.

 

Did any of your team members at Propel Performance share your experiences of flying in combat or high-risk zones?

 

To be fair, while I never engaged in direct combat myself, flying into war zones was pretty much par for the course throughout my career. I've been to places like Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Imagine trying to land in airports while there's a very real risk of being shot at. The irony is, the aircraft I piloted during these missions weren't your typical warbirds; they were the kind of VIP corporate jets you might see in glossy magazines.

So, picture this: here we are, flying into some of the most hostile environments on the planet, and what do we have on board? No armaments, no guns—just a couple of teapots and an oven. It's almost comical when you think about it, but that was the reality. We were ferrying these sleek, unarmed jets straight into the heart of conflict zones, relying on our wits and the aircraft's agility to get through unscathed.

 

Who would your passengers typically be?

 

Back in the UK, my daily routine often involved flying high-profile passengers like the Prime Minister, Cabinet members, and the Royal Family. It was all part of the job. When it came to operational missions, we'd be tasked with transporting top brass – the senior military officers who needed to get right to the heart of the action, to the strategic airfields and command centres.

Our aircraft were built for speed and agility, not just luxury. This meant we could respond rapidly to any urgent requirement. So, it wasn't just the high-ranking officials; we'd also fly Special Forces or anyone with a critical need to move swiftly. Sometimes, it was deeply personal; we'd help someone return home urgently for compassionate reasons, maybe a family emergency or a loved one's critical condition.

We essentially became the go-to for any mission that required quick, efficient transport. Whether it was flying the Prime Minister into Kandahar or delivering vital components to Kabul, we adapted to the needs of the moment. Our role was multifaceted, often far removed from the ceremonial duties one might associate with the Royal Squadron. It was about being ready for anything, anytime, and ensuring that we delivered, no matter the circumstances.

 

It’s no secret Matt that you were one of the first pilots to come out as being gay in the RAF. How have your experiences as an RAF pilot, a diversity advocate and a commercial pilot intertwined to shape your perspectives on leadership and high performance teams?

 

Coming out in the RAF, a place not exactly known for its early embrace of diversity, really put me through the wringer. But it also handed me this unique lens to look at leadership and team dynamics differently. You see, in the military, there's this very particular brand of leadership drummed into you. It's all about authority, command, leading from the front—ideal for wartime, sure, but not so much for the day-to-day grind of managing a team or running a squadron.

My own journey, especially around coming out, introduced me to some remarkable people, like Wing-commander Tom Barrett. Tom was a breath of fresh air in a pretty stifled environment. He wasn't your typical military leader; he led with empathy and trust, not just orders and commands. From him, I learned the real power of connecting with people on a human level, something I hadn't experienced before in the RAF's strict hierarchy.

This whole experience taught me a lot about what leadership should look like, even outside the military. It's not about barking orders from behind a lectern or flaunting your rank. It's about reaching people, getting into their hearts and minds. It's about empathy and trust. If you can't forge that connection, you're only going to get so far, no matter how loud you can shout.

So, in a way, my journey—being one of the first openly gay pilots in the RAF, advocating for diversity, and then navigating the commercial aviation world—has shown me that leadership is about carrying people with you, not leading them from behind a barrier. And that's a lesson I've carried with me, one I try to impart wherever I go, whether I'm in the cockpit or delivering a keynote on diversity and inclusion. It's about making those small, meaningful connections that can have a huge impact, often more than the person making them might ever realize.

 

Reflecting now, can you share a pivotal experience, particularly related to your identity, that solidified your dedication to championing diversity and inclusion?

 

It's been quite a journey, one that's had its fair share of confusing and, frankly, frustrating moments. There I was, fully aware of my abilities, wholly dedicated to the RAF, and yet, the very institution I was committed to seemed at odds with who I was. The notion that being open about my sexuality could somehow diminish my loyalty or commitment to serving my country was baffling, to say the least. The outdated attitudes and regulations I encountered just didn't square with reality. It seemed ludicrous that in an environment where everyone is pulling their weight, where loyalty is paramount, something as personal as one's sexuality could be grounds for contention. And then, even after the laws began to change, adapting those entrenched attitudes within the organization was another battle.

But there was this one incident, a real turning point for me. I overheard some quite distasteful remarks being made about a steward on the squadron - remarks that person wasn't there to defend against. That moment crystallised something for me. I realized that this was exactly why I needed to stay in the RAF — to stand up against such prejudice. It was a stark reminder that change was necessary, and I had a role to play in that.

So, I took a stand, confronted the individuals involved, and insisted on accountability, not just for the sake of the person being talked about but for the integrity of the RAF's values around equality and diversity. The support I received from the RAF in dealing with the situation was heartening, and it underscored the importance of not turning a blind eye, of standing up for what's right, even if the person affected isn't there to witness it.

This incident, among others, solidified my resolve to be an advocate for change, to ensure that no one else would have to face such challenges alone. It was a defining moment, reinforcing the belief that we all have a responsibility to foster an inclusive environment, not just in the RAF but in every sphere of life. It taught me the power of using one's position to effect change, to stand up for others, and to champion a culture of acceptance and respect.

 

This is fascinating, Matt. Could you share any other lessons from your aviation experience that has proven to be valuable for leadership and decision-making outside the cockpit?

 

One of the most counter-intuitive, yet profoundly impactful lessons I've drawn from commercial aviation, which applies universally to leadership and decision-making, revolves around fostering that 'speak-up' culture within a collaborative decision-making framework. It might seem paradoxical at first—how do you maintain authority while encouraging open dialogue? But that's the crux of modern aviation safety and, frankly, any high-functioning team.

Back in the day, the rigid hierarchies in aviation, where one person held all the answers, led to disastrous outcomes. We learned the hard way that such a system is fatally flawed. The industry had to undergo a seismic shift, particularly after the lessons learned from the tragedies of the '70s and '80s. Today, the ethos is about leveraging the collective expertise of the entire crew. Everyone is encouraged to voice concerns, especially when it comes to safety. "Stop, this is unsafe" – this call to action applies to everyone on board, regardless of rank.

Yet, and this is crucial, the captain still holds the reins when it comes to the final call. It's about gathering all that collective input, weighing it, and then making an informed decision. It's a delicate balance between being open to input and being decisive. And it's something that, surprisingly, many seasoned aviators struggle with. They perceive collaborative decision-making as a threat to their authority, which couldn't be further from the truth.

What this teaches us about leadership, whether you're in the cockpit or the boardroom, is that drawing on your team's insights doesn't diminish your authority. On the contrary, it enriches the decision-making process. It's about harnessing the power of your team's collective knowledge and then steering that ship with conviction. That's the kind of leadership that doesn't just avert disasters; it propels teams toward excellence.

 

Looking ahead at the evolution of aviation safety, would you say that the most significant factor in enhancing safety lies then, in fostering a more collaborative culture and open communication channels?

 

Absolutely, without a shadow of a doubt. You know, back in the '80s, NASA, the University of Texas, and a whole host of American airlines did some deep diving into this. They unearthed something quite startling – nearly 75% of all aviation mishaps were tied back to human behaviour. It's quite something when you think about it.

Our birds are engineered to be resilient – lose an engine, and they'll keep flying; a hydraulic system goes kaput, and we've got backups. The tech on board is nothing short of brilliant. Even if our primary systems fail, we're still in the game, thanks to state-of-the-art navigation gear and a solid line to air traffic control.

But here's the kicker – all that technological marvel and redundancy mean squat if the human element isn't in sync. Egos, rigid team dynamics, outdated hierarchy models – they're like kryptonite to an otherwise invincible aircraft. It's as if we're clipping the wings of these magnificent machines with our own miscommunications.

So, yeah, the crux of aviation safety, or the lack thereof, often boils down to us – the people manning the fort. It's a humbling reminder that in aviation, our greatest asset and our Achilles' heel are one and the same: the human element.

 

What strategies do you now employ to cultivate and maintain high performance especially within teams that are rich in diversity?

 

When it comes to defining and sustaining high performance in diverse teams, I firmly believe diversity itself is the bedrock of strength. You see, no single person has all the answers. It's the amalgamation of different perspectives, backgrounds, and experiences that fuels innovation, whether you're shaking up the status quo or navigating more traditional waters.

Here's the thing, when someone in the team brings a groundbreaking idea to the table, it's crucial to let them own it, to shine in the spotlight of their contribution. It's not just about giving a quiet nod in a corner; it's about public recognition, a hearty 'well done' that resonates through the ranks. This approach is a stark departure from the old military playbook I was weaned on, where ideas were often commandeered rather than credited.

Moreover, fostering a culture where every team member, regardless of their rank, feels empowered to question decisions is vital. Take HS2, for instance. It's been ploughing ahead for years, despite mounting concerns, all because of the 'sunk cost fallacy'. It's essential to challenge this mindset. I often say, "Why not ask the most junior member for their take?" It's about encouraging them to speak up, to point out potential pitfalls, even after a course of action has been decided. This not only democratises decision-making but also cultivates a sense of ownership and accountability across the board.

So, in essence, leading high-performing diverse teams is about harnessing the collective intelligence, fostering an environment where every voice is valued, and every contribution is celebrated. It's about being agile, adaptable, and always open to recalibrating based on the team's input. That's how you keep pushing the envelope, maintaining high performance in the rich tapestry of a diverse team.

 

Perfect. This has genuinely been a fascinating chat Matt. Thank you! Let's wrap this up with your three non-negotiable habits, towards living a high performance life. 

 

Right, so diving straight into it, my day kicks off on a non-negotiable note with coffee. And I'm not talking about your run-of-the-mill instant kind; I fancy the good stuff. It's like my morning ritual, my little luxury that sets the tone for the day ahead. Deny me that first cup of posh coffee, and we're off to a rocky start. It's more than just a beverage for me; it's about the ritual, the routine that gives my day structure.

Then there's exercise, an absolute must in my book. No matter how hectic life gets, I make it a point to get some form of physical activity in. It's my way of compartmentalising, of breaking free from the 'drowning moments', as I like to call them. You know, those times when you're so swamped, you can't see the wood for the trees. Hitting the gym or going for a run acts as a hard reset for me, clearing the mental clutter and recharging my batteries.

And lastly, but certainly not least, is the ability to laugh at myself. Life's got its pressures, its challenges, but if you can't step back and have a laugh at the absurdity of it all, then what's the point? Surrounding myself with friends who keep me grounded, who remind me not to take myself too seriously, that's crucial. It's about maintaining that balance, keeping the levity in life amidst all its demands.

So, there you have it: coffee, exercise, and a good dose of self-deprecating humour. These are the pillars that keep me standing tall. 

Matt, thank you so much - it has been an absolute pleasure chatting and getting to know you. We very look forward to supporting you on this new journey with 360!

 

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