Ray Klaassens: a leader is there at the right time

Ray Klaassens, who doesn’t know him. This former commando is chief instructor in the hit TV show Kamp van Koningsbrugge and travels the country to share his insights with companies. This time he was at 24 uur in Bedrijf on stage at Domus Dela Church. We talked to him about obstacles you need in order to grow into a true leader.

Text Colette de Vries
Image Charlotte Grips

Which challenge is greater as a commando: the physical or mental one?

‘A lot of people see becoming a commando as a physical challenge. But it’s actually about how you deal with situations when your body tells you to stop. When your strong body fails as a weapon, you turn back to your mental strength. Where does that leave you? In the end, it’s all about mindset.’

How do you increase your mental strength?

‘You increase your resilience by struggling and overcoming obstacles. The more often you do it, the more you are able to handle. The character of a commando is built by putting them in a situation of ultimate deprivation: an extreme lack of sleep and food, in wet and cold environments. Exhaustion makes you easily irritable, but the trick is to keep your irritation to yourself. To focus on what matters and separate the essential from the side issues. Because that will distract you from the main mission. This trains you not to put energy into negativity and to keep focus on what matters. Eventually it gets so intense and the question always comes up: ‘What am I doing here?’ And then you only have to do one thing: keep going! Don’t give up. Choosing ‘the path with most resistance’ teaches you that adversity brings you something: a huge sense of pride and belonging. ‘You only feel regret, guilt and shame when you haven’t given it your all.’

You started the morning with a philosophy: stoicism. What message is there for entrepreneurs here?

‘The concept behind stoicism is not to focus on external events over which you have no control, but on your inner purpose: your attitude and the way you deal with situations. That is within your grasp. There are constant hold-ups in special operations. Then you need those who are 100% ‘willing’. People who can put their egos aside and handle change flexibly. Keep moving and doing, that’s what it’s all about. They aren’t necessarily the best or the brightest.’

This ties in nicely with your vision of leadership: what do you DO when you are at a fork in the road and it really matters?

‘You’re a leader when you are there at the right time. Good leaders mobilise the people who have the drive but don’t know how. If the team’s machine isn’t running smoothly, it’s up to the leader to see where it is faltering. Choices have to be made and it comes down to personal leadership. How do people behave if the machine crashes? We then tend to pull back a bit in the hope that someone else will step up. Personal leadership means you are present at these times and don’t stay safely in your comfort zone.’

Where do businesses and the military diverge the most?

‘A special forces team has a sense of urgency, it’s a matter of life and death. You can’t escape, and that’s when behaviour becomes very pure. It creates a collaborative mindset and a cohesive team. In the workplace, you don’t feel that sense of urgency. It’s not about life and death there. So you need to create a sense of urgency in your business to get the same kind of processes going. As a leader, you have to put pressure on the system with bold goals that require people to sail close to the wind. ‘Outside their comfort zones, that’s where it happens and where you accelerate the growth process for people and teams.’

Business is becoming less and less hierarchical. Command and control is an important part of the military world. Does that ever lead to friction?

‘I don’t think so. How you handle resistance as a leader determines whether something becomes a problem or not. Give people the freedom to act in a way that is appropriate to their experience and professionalism. Leadership is all about adapting. You have to explain and be clear with your expectations. Business also needs defined boundaries and ground rules for self-directed teams to be able to function.’

Your book Groeipijn [Growing Pains] will be out soon. Why does every entrepreneur need to read it?

‘Groeipijn teaches you how to take control and give others the chance to fall and learn. Not constantly plugging in all the holes and trying to get ahead of the pain for others. People have to go through that pain to become strong. Otherwise, people won’t grow.

What is the most important you have for entrepreneurs?

The main lesson I have for entrepreneurs is that people are your most important capital, so you have to be careful with them. They are ‘the tent’, your brand. Invest in them, keep them and work on their desire for identity

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