This story, from Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek, came flooding back into my mind after reading this recent article, Wisconsin President Criticized for Meeting Students. An influential Republican state senator criticized the University of Wisconsin System President for pandering to students after meeting with them to discuss improving the climate for minority students.
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.”
Articles focused on actual and perceived inequalities are increasing. Regardless of personal opinion, it is not a topic that will soon be swept under the rug. The reason is not a political or even an educational one. It’s about the value we place on people. People want to be heard. They want to know that their opinions and their views matter. As a University president, the role of assuring people matter is not limited to the department heads, staff, and faculty that keep the institution running, but equally extends to the well-being of students. It starts with an internal culture that promotes the value of every individual.
While University presidents may drink from a ceramic cup indicative of the position they hold, they must not forget that we all deserve a Styrofoam cup. Setting aside position, rank, and influence, we are all people with real challenges, concerns, and struggles. We all have dreams, goals, and ideals. Before we begin judging other people, we should stop and ask ourselves which approach offers solutions, finger-pointing and name calling or a genuine attempt at understanding even if it doesn’t result in agreement?
When we remove the ceramic cups and invite people to come together on their own terms, we may realize that, while the circumstances change, the issues are real. They are real to the people who live and experience them every day. An individual’s position should never remove them from those they are responsible to care for and lead. Higher education may be facing some turbulent times, but the one area on which everyone should agree, is that people come first.
“The true price of leadership is the willingness to place the needs of others above your own. Great leaders truly care about those they are privileged to lead and understand that the true cost of the leadership privilege comes at the expense of self-interest.”
~ Simon Sinek
What could happen if University presidents started putting all people first? Ray Cross did.