Every job has its perks. The higher the position, the more perks are available. Most often the perks are simple things, designed to both honor one’s status and facilitate one’s work. Simon Sinek, author and inspirational speaker, tells a story about perks which is not just instructive but imparts an essential truth about honor and dishonor, big and small.
Sinek recalls 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.”
It is a simple lesson, but a hard one to actually learn. Especially when honor expands and becomes more and more loosely connected with facilitating the basics of your job performance. Honor can be very seductive. It becomes easy to start thinking the honor is for me not the role I play in the system.
The trap is forgetting that there must be a quid pro quo in honoring our leaders. By definition quid pro quo means something for something else, and implied is the notion that there is an exchange of equal value. Perhaps I am overly idealistic, but my Mama always told me that life is a two-way street. Any position of employment or government leadership that honors you… in turn you must be prepared to equally honor that system.
There is a quid pro quo built into every relationship, every institution. Honor and tradition, the results of quid pro quo, are unifying principles which transform a group of individuals into a society of peoples. Recent events in Washington DC have shown how veering away from quid pro quo by denigrating political institutions can weaken the fabric of a nation, any nation, even the United States of America.
Yet, idealism is never easy. Again, honor can be very seductive. But is anarchy ever easy or fair? Here is a history told in the ancient Sanskrit text Srimad Bhagavatam which I have found to be both consoling and inspiring.
Prthu Maharaja was born into the kingdom of the demonic King Vena, who was known for his cruel tyrannical rule. Vena had personally dismantled the social, financial, and religious institutions of the kingdom leaving the citizens in great distress and with no protection from the whims of their leader. Acting out of deep concern for the wellbeing of the citizens, the brahmanas invoked special mantras to rid the kingdom of the cursed Vena and then placed Prthu on the throne.
When Prthu was coronated as the king, the professional reciters called sütas and magadhas started singing of his glorious qualities and activities. But Prthu stopped them, saying he was yet to display those qualities in his life.
The translator and commentator of Srimad Bhagvatam, Srila Prabhupada comments about how quid pro quo formed the basis of Prthu’s character and provided hope, not hype, for the citizens: “He wanted to stress that one who does not actually possess these qualities should not try to engage his followers and devotees in offering him glory for them, even though these qualities might be manifest in the future. If a man who does not factually possess the attributes of a great personality engages his followers in praising him with the expectation that such attributes will develop in the future, that sort of praise is actually an insult.”
The quid pro quo: do something to deserve honor before demanding honor from others. It is a time-honored truth.
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Sesa Dasa joined ISKCON in 1973 and was initiated by Srila Prabhupada in 1974 while he was traveling as a member of the initial Bhaktivedanta Book Trust library party. He attended the United States Military Academy and later received a degree in political science from the State University of New York, Albany. In 1991 he earned a Juris Doctor degree from the UCLA School of Law. He is a member of several ISKCON GBC committees.
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