“Unity is strength… when there is teamwork and collaboration, wonderful things can be achieved.” Mattie Stepanek
As we move through life, we realize that the people who had the greatest impact on us were those with whom we had strong chemistry.
That can be evident in friendships when one can finish the other’s sentence or knows when their friend needs a shoulder. These special relationships bring out our best selves and give us a sense of belonging. They tend to be enduring and meaningful, and the ones we cherish for a lifetime.
I had such a friendship with Lance Ringnald, who was my best friend in junior high and early high school. In that short span of time, he influenced me by his dedication to gymnastics, a sport where he excelled and earned a place on the 1988 Olympic team. He would go on to earn more than 70 medals in international competitions during his competitive career.
Lance taught me about the chemistry of collaboration at a very young age. I will always remember a conversation I had with him when we were 15 years old. It was the first lesson I had in success.
It was not until 30 years later that I made a point to reach out to him to revisit that lesson and we picked up where we left off reconnecting in a full-circle moment. I reminded him of that conversation that made such an impact on me when we were teens. Our conversation made me realize how important it is to align yourself with the people in life that bring out the best in you.
That’s what Lance did for me when I witnessed the dedication he had to training to be a top-level gymnast. As a teenager, I remember telling him that all he thought about was training and he was becoming more and more isolated. He told me that it wasn’t that he was becoming isolated; we were just not envisioning the same thing. He was focused on one thing and one thing only — succeeding in his sport.
I suggested going to the local gymnasium with him one after while he trained. Since that is where he spent so much time and we were friends, I thought I would go along with it and take up gymnastics also. He asked me, “Why would you do that? You are not good at it and you should focus on things you are good at and become the best. If you continue trying to do something you’re not good at, you are taking away from becoming the best at what you are good at.”
That conversation has lasted with me all these years, impacting me way beyond my comprehension at 15 years-old.
Through the chemistry of our friendship, we could be honest with one another and have that kind of conversation. We might not have excelled at the same things, but we had a good rapport that allowed us to see each other’s points of view.
Most people are not concerned about collaboration until it turns into an interpersonal relationship issue or a people conflict. This is unfortunate because that mindset costs organizations money and opportunities, and creates inefficiencies and dysfunctional relationships.
The chemistry of collaboration and all the people involved to get each athlete to that level form the foundation of their success. Lance told me, “It takes a village is an understatement. There are so many people who influence your path along the way, even in passing.”
When people are working toward a common goal, their chemistry of collaboration allows their vision to become reality.
This is where Lance agrees that his training with top gymnasts pushed him to the top. When Lance left Midway during his sophomore year to move to Albuquerque, his life changed. His training became so much more intense that he skyrocketed in the rankings.
“When you’re around motivated exceptional people, then you train at that level. You train around mediocrity, you tend to be mediocre,” he recounted.
This hit home with Lance when he grasped a particular skill in his new environment simply because it was expected.
“There was a skill in Texas I used to avoid. I got to Albuquerque, and the coach said we needed to do this skill three times. You didn’t question it. You just did it and it became easy. Everyone else was so good you did not want to stick out or lag behind,” he remembered.
“They pulled things out of me I didn’t know I had in me, but they did. I became a gymnast I didn’t know I was. I would not have made the Olympic team if I had stayed in Waco. I trained a certain way in a box, but when I went to Albuquerque, anything was possible.”
The collaboration of working with other top athletes drove him to a higher level.
“Your biggest foes are also your biggest influences on becoming better. We all wanted to be the best. We had a great non-verbal collaboration. Every time you’re in the gym together, you are influencing each other,” he says.
“It’s funny because I got along with them fine. It wasn’t so much verbal collaboration but that dynamic of non-verbal collaboration that you’re all training for the same goal. If I didn’t train with them, I wouldn’t have become the gymnast that I was. I was very fortunate to be in a really good training environment.”
Lance says it’s the same in a work environment when people are collaborating and they are instinctively making each other better.
“When you are in an office, you may not be thinking about that. Paying attention is one of the biggest deficiencies in most people,” he says. “In gymnastics, you pay attention to such fine detail. I’m lucky to have learned that.”
One of the greatest lessons he learned was from a coach.
“When I was 10 years-old, he said, ‘Look Lance, you’re going to need a lot of coaches. Pick their brains and take what you need to make yourself better.’ ”
Lance took that advice to heart and looked at every individual who touched his life as a potential teacher, someone from whom he could learn. Both of his parents were gymnasts so he took to the sport naturally, but he also realized that excellence would not be handed to him. He would have to earn it.
With an innate passion and a willingness to work hard, Lance drove himself to be single-minded in his purpose.
“For me, I would look for any way I could to get better. It was an innocent process at that time,” he says. “As a passionate person, everything everybody said stayed with me. Gymnastics spoke to me, I didn’t really speak to it.”
By the time he was 18 in 1988, Lance was a finalist at the tryouts for the Olympic team. He also excelled at the world championships before injuring his shoulder in 1991. It was his first major injury as an athlete and a huge setback with only eight months to prepare for the next Olympic tryouts.
This was a pivotal point for Lance as he made the 1992 Olympic team as a non-competing traveling reserve. He embraced his new supporting role as an encourager for his teammates.
“I knew what it meant. It was the first time in my life I didn’t have physical control over what I needed to know,” says Lance.
He had worked hard to recover from the injury and compete again.
“You do everything in your power to make what you want to happen, happen,” he says. “It’s a two-edge sword because you want to be out there.”
Then he faced the fact that despite his best efforts, his role on the team had changed.
“Once I was familiar with the emotion of knowing I had done all I could, I was OK. There is peace in that. If I hadn’t done everything in my power to get back to full health as I watched my other teammates competing, I would have had a hard time.”
In addition to his physical injury, he understood he was mentally at about 95 percent.
“If you aren’t 100%, it’s hard to be in medal contention at the Olympic level,” he says. “It’s very demanding.”
He went on participate in an Olympic tour of the top athletes who performed around the country inspiring up and coming young athletes and a wide fan base.
He also started meeting entertainers from other genres and discovering the possibility of using his skill outside of the competitive setting.
“I did not have the mental level at that time to compete. How do you stay hungry when you’re full? I had already been to the Olympics and the young guys coming up were hungry,” he says.
“I could stay in the sport and slowly deteriorate or I could do this thing that I was being called to. I started thinking about how I wanted to entertain.”
The freedom of performing and connecting with his audience energized Lance to continue to excel. He now shares his talents and his story by traveling on cruise ships where he meets people from all over the world.
“People are driven by two things, fear and opportunity. I was driven by fear when I was still competing,” he says. “In performance, it’s a different kind of connection.”
He also explored other passions in his life such as music, chess and teaching memory techniques.
Through each of these endeavors he has tapped into the power of collaborating with others.
“There are some people who are five times better because of their chemistry,” he said.
“I do a lot of music writing, and I play the piano. My knowledge musically is limited, but when I work with other musicians something happens. When you write with somebody else a whole other creature is created. In music, gymnastics or anything else, you learn you can’t do it alone.”
Leaders are learners. The most impactful leaders never stop working to improve.
“If I like something, I tend to excel at it. If I don’t like something, I tend to not do well,” he says.
“I’m intrigued by the process of learning. As you get older it’s different. When you’re younger you can be obsessed with one thing. I work to find balance now.”
Lance tapped into what he learned as a highly-trained athlete to adapt himself to new environments and develop new skills.
“I am driven by a challenge to be productive,” says Lance. “Our brain is like a piece of pie, and some people have bigger pieces for some things and smaller pieces for others. I have a larger piece of pie for physical things. I think learning things makes me feel like I can influence the world.”
He realized that pursuing activities where he not only excelled but could impact others were the most satisfying.
“I wanted to improve my memory. It’s very much like gymnastics. It’s very competitive,” he says. “I was meeting people, but then I would see them on another ship and they would remember me, but I also wanted to remember them. It’s a personal connection that creates the foundation for collaboration.”
Through reconnecting with Lance I learned that everywhere we go we are not on an isolated island by ourselves. We are always living in a world of collaboration. We interact with others in every aspect of our life. These people are our influencers, and we are theirs.
Lance reminded me of a great lesson when you have a spotlight on you as a motivator, regardless if it’s in the role of an entertainer, teacher, supervisor, or any other leadership capacity when you’re on stage — the audience is going to feel exactly like you. If you’re having a good time, they are having a good time. If you’re nervous, they are nervous. They know how to connect.
“When a whole crowd is laughing together, there is a sense of unity. When you’re on stage, it’s a very raw and efficient form of communicating. I like the environment,” he said. “We get on our little podium for a moment to express who and what we are.”
It’s a chance to leave people feeling better than you found them.
“The whole process is based around collaboration. Collaboration has a huge influence on people. Vulnerability makes collaboration more potent. The more authentic someone is the more sincere.”
Life is a collaboration. We have to realize who we synergize with and who we don’t. We have to realize with whom we have chemistry to get the best results. It doesn’t mean we have to all think the alike but be willing to accept honest and open discussion.
An ancient Zen proverb says, “Where there is a desire to learn, a teacher will appear. To be your best, you must seek the wisdom of someone who has been there before. Align yourself with people from whom you can learn.
If you fall into a hole, you don’t not need a bunch of people looking down telling you what you should do to get out. You need someone willing to jump in with you and show you how they got out of a similar situation.
There’s no lack of knowledge in the world, but there is a lack of asking for it when you need it.
Lance says if he were to give advice to his younger self, it would be to not let the fear of failure stop you from moving forward with your dreams. Gather around those who want to see you succeed and give it all you’ve got.