Leadership Lessons: Ep 1 — The Styrofoam Cup

Abhishek Paul
2 min readOct 10, 2018

I’ve come back to Simon Sinek recently, after a gap of almost 4–5 years. The Lindy Effect was proved, ie— the longer something remains relevant the more valuable it is. At a recent discussion one of the listeners commented that what I shared was contrary to what one normally hears on the topic. I was happy — I did not want to waste anyone’s time by either sharing generic gyaan or something that can easily be found on Google. I believed the listeners to be much more intelligent. I hope to do the same in writing on leadership.

Sinek shared the incident of a former Under Secretary of Defence giving a talk. In the middle of the speech, he pauses and looks at the styrofoam cup containing coffee. He tells his audience that last year when he was still the serving Under Secretary and spoke at the same conference, he was flown in business class, had someone pick him up at the airport and check him into a hotel, then bring him to the conference and serve him coffee in a beautiful ceramic cup. This year, he flew coach, had to take a cab to the hotel, find his way backstage and when he asked for coffee, someone pointed him to the dispenser containing the styrofoam cup he now held. He said that’s when he realized that the ceramic cup was never for him, it was for his role / position — he only deserved the styrofoam cup.

I could relate. When I was working with Infosys in my mid to late twenties I would have people from all the top engineering colleges asking me to visit them and address their students / faculty. The owners would take time to sit with me and have coffee. They would prioritize my time over that of their department heads, students, etc. But the moment I left the company, everything went away — pretty much like Cinderella at the stroke of midnight. I was rudely awakened to the reality that all the attention that was showered was only because of the company I worked for. It was a much needed lesson in humility. The ability to separate the trappings of the role / leadership position and the individual is something that I learnt early on in my career.

Now I can look back in gratitude for all the times I had the ceramic cup offered to me while content to drink out of a styrofoam one.