handshake, generic
A shake that counts for nothing. Picture is for illustrative purposes. Image Credit: Pixabay

Are you a man or woman of your word? Are you a person who others can trust? Someone who does what they promise to do?

The immediate response of most people would be a resounding “Yes!”; after all, who wants to admit to being otherwise? But the reality on the ground – the politics plastered over the news and the personal experiences in our everyday lives – points to a different truth.

A firm handshake is supposed to be just as good as a written contract, or even better. Well, at least that used to be the case. When I was growing up, a person’s reputation was made or lost on a handshake and their ability to keep a promise, but not anymore.

As we prepare to welcome 2020 and all the technological advancement that it promises to bring, one of the most fundamental human values is rapidly becoming a distant memory. Once upon a time, being a man of your word was something to be proud of – a trait to live by – but now, it sounds like nothing more than an outdated expression, wheeled out occasionally when reminiscing about an old relative.

Aside from the faces in the faded pictures hanging proudly on walls, it has no place in the modern world.

A brazen demand

Unfortunately, there are examples aplenty of high-profile individuals breaking their word in the most public of forums, but there is one particular instance that struck me recently. Just days ago, I was stunned to read in “The Washington Post” that Chicago mayor, Lori Lightfoot, had pressed US presidential candidate, Pete Buttigieg, to break the non-disclosure agreement (NDA) with his former employer, McKinsey & Co.

He did not do it quietly for fear of what others might think. No, Lightfoot apparently had no qualms about stepping on stage in front of hundreds of people and addressing Buttigieg in no uncertain terms with the words: “You should break the NDA.”

In and of itself, that is bad advice, but what disappointed me most was hearing Lightfoot – a mayor, attorney, and the former chair of the Chicago Police Accountability Task Force – effectively tell Buttigieg to break his word. Oh, and while he’s at it, ignore the law and break that too.

Set in stone

An NDA, also known as a confidentiality agreement, is a legal contract between at least two parties that outlines private material or information that they wish to share with one another for a specific purpose. The information is for their eyes and ears only, never to be shared with the outside world.

Not only is an NDA legally binding, it marks a confidential relationship that relies on trust. It might sound like a paper exercise designed solely for politicians and business tycoons with secrets to keep. But in fact, we all rely on NDAs in some form or another: doctor–patient confidentiality, attorney–client privilege, priest–penitent confidence, bank–client confidentiality, employer-employee non-disclosure... the list goes on.

Nothing is sacrosanct

What’s next? Will Lightfoot and others like him start recommending that doctors divulge patient notes in the name of some warped sense of greater good?

These days, it appears that public service officials and attorneys are proposing that people simply forgo their legal obligations in order to serve divisive interests. In fact, so normalized has it become, breaking one’s word – and the signed contract that often goes with it – now seems the practice du jour.

Not so long ago, people were made to face the consequences of breaking their promises. Now, they are applauded for it.

We are living in an era where words are becoming meaningless, and that is simply wrong. In the name of human decency, we need to restore the value in keeping promises and uphold the gentleman’s handshake that once meant so much.

If we fail in the collective task to make words great again, then the world that awaits us is one of loneliness, paranoia and mistrust.

When you say something, stick to it. It’s as simple as that.

Tommy Weir is CEO of enaible: AI-powered leadership and author of “Leadership Dubai Style”. Contact him at tsw@tommyweir.com.