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Context From The Talk

George P. Shultz On The Danger Of Empty Threats

No Empty Threats

I remember the day the sergeant handed me my rifle. He said, ‘Take good care of this rifle, this is your best friend, and remember one thing: never point this rifle at anybody unless you're willing to pull the trigger.’ 

No empty threats. Boot camp wisdom. You’ve seen when people violate boot camp wisdom, they lose their ability to have any influence. No one pays any attention anymore.

 I told that story to President Reagan and we were very careful and I can remember times in this situation where somebody would say, ‘Well, if they do that, that's unacceptable.’ And then we'd say, ‘Well, what are you going to do if that happens?’ The answer is nothing. Well, if the answer is nothing then you accepted it, so it's not unacceptable. Don't say it's unacceptable unless you mean it and you're going to do something. Very important principle. But there's another side to it, too. That is, if you're a person who does what you promise to do then people can trust you and they can deal with you. If you go back on your word, you can't be trusted, so you can't be dealt with. 

So in this sense, I've always felt trust is the coin of the realm in human dealings. That means that you do what you say you're going to do and that means you're careful when you commit to do something because you're going to do it. '

You can't just make empty gestures.”