Life / Meaning · January 3, 2018

A Styrofoam Cup and a Seat at the Table

“I heard a story about a former Under Secretary of Defense who gave a speech at a large conference. He took his place on the stage and began talking, sharing his prepared remarks with the audience. He paused to take a sip of coffee from the Styrofoam cup he’d brought on stage with him. He took another sip, looked down at the cup and smiled.  

“You know,” he said, interrupting his own speech, “I spoke here last year. I presented at this same conference on this same stage. But last year, I was still an Under Secretary,” he said. “I flew here in business class and when I landed, there was someone waiting for me at the airport to take me to my hotel. Upon arriving at my hotel,” he continued, “there was someone else waiting for me. They had already checked me into the hotel, so they handed me my key and escorted me up to my room. The next morning, when I came down, again there was someone waiting for me in the lobby to drive me to this same venue that we are in today. I was taken through a back entrance, shown to the greenroom and handed a cup of coffee in a beautiful ceramic cup.”  

“But this year, as I stand here to speak to you, I am no longer the Under Secretary,” he continued. “I flew here coach class and when I arrived at the airport yesterday there was no one there to meet me. I took a taxi to the hotel, and when I got there, I checked myself in and went by myself to my room. This morning, I came down to the lobby and caught another taxi to come here. I came in the front door and found my way backstage. Once there, I asked one of the techs if there was any coffee. He pointed to a coffee machine on a table against the wall. So I walked over and poured myself a cup of coffee into this here Styrofoam cup,” he said as he raised the cup to show the audience.  

“It occurs to me,” he continued, “the ceramic cup they gave me last year…it was never meant for me at all. It was meant for the position I held. I deserve a Styrofoam cup.” 

“This is the most important lesson I can impart to all of you,” he offered. “All the perks, all the benefits and advantages you may get for the rank or position you hold, they aren’t meant for you. They are meant for the role you fill. And when you leave your role, which eventually you will, they will give the ceramic cup to the person who replaces you. Because you only ever deserved a Styrofoam cup.” 


The above is a passage about the Ceramic and Styrofoam cup from Simon Sinek’s masterful work Leaders Eat Last, this parable is a sobering reminder to appreciate the accoutrements we’re afforded in different roles, use positions of power to benefit others, and not let the trappings of titles or status cloud our judgement.

If anything, it encourages the following as a best practice — Stay humble. Stay hungry. 

Well something similar happened to me. In my case it was not a ceramic or styrofoam cup, instead it was a seat at the dining table.

In Amy of 2017, I was the organizing chairperson for the District 87 Toastmasters International Conference, held in Kota Kinabalu, It was about 1 and a half years in the making and was one of the grander District conferences.

We had speakers from Australia, we had the Malim Gunungs or Mount Kinabalu Mountain guides who had just proved how heroic and valuable they are during the M Kinabalu earthquake.

During the conference, as Organising Chairperson, I delivered the welcoming speech at the opening of the conference and during the gala dinner. During the gala dinner, I sat at the main table with the District leaders and honored guests. During the closing, I was again invited to say a few words and then pass the flag to the next conference organisers who were Sibu.

Fast forward a few months, and I am in Sibu for the semi annual district meeting and conference. After making my report at the District Leadership meeting and handing over a check for RM 7k plus (our conference was the first in a while to make money), my role and responsibility as organising chairperson ended.

In the evening, I headed up to the gala dinner. I was slightly late and arrived about 20 min after the entertainment had started. This time, there was no one to greet me, no seat set aside for me. Basically, I had no seat or table to the gala dinner.

Fortunately some people in the organising team noticed me and several others who had no seats and quickly arranged for a table to be set up..right at the back of the hall. At the table, I reflected at how far I had fallen. From the main table to a table at the back of the hall.

Similarly to the story Simon heard, the accoutrements that I enjoyed as Organising chair, were for the role and title and not for me per se. It was a sad yet sobering experience and yes. Stay humble. Stay hungry.