In this episode, Bridgette and Irvine explore the phenomenon of resistance and sabotage — why this is part and parcel of the leadership experience and something to expect rather than to be feared.
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Bridgette: Hello, everybody, and welcome to the Resilient Leadership Podcast, where everything we talk about is aimed at helping you to lead with a greater sense of calm, clarity, and conviction, even in the midst of great uncertainty and disruption. My name is Bridgette Theurer, and I’m delighted to be joined by my co-host and collaborator, Irvine Nugent. Irvine, how are you doing today?
Irvine: Hey, Bridgette, I’m doing well. I’ve been busy, I’ve been traveling a lot, but, really, enjoying this beautiful weather in DC. It’s, as we record this, the middle of November and we’re still at 70 degrees, so what’s not to love about that? And I went for a hike the other day and just the changing leaves were, simply, amazing, so I love this time of year.
Bridgette: It is a beautiful time of year. Is fall your favorite season?
Irvine: It has to be Spring. Spring and then fall.
Bridgette: Okay. Yeah.
Bridgette: And I’m a summer person.
Bridgette: I know. Isn’t that, you’re like, Oh, really?
Irvine: Yeah. It brings back, I used to live in Florida for 21 years, so it brings back humidity and heat when I think of summer. So, I never adjusted quite well to that.
Bridgette: Irvine, I now remember that, but I, kind of, forgot that little detail that you grew up or not grew up, but you spent a lot of time in Florida and I just came back from Florida and it was hot. It was 82 degrees and the sun felt like, I don’t know, so strong, right? But, anyway, it’s so good to be here.
Irvine: Yes. So, what are we going to talk about today? Tell us, fill us in.
Bridgette: Okay. So, the topic for today is a question. And the question is, are you stuck in a toxic triangle? And if you are, how the heck do you get unstuck? You and I wanted to devote an entire episode to this, because triangles have a profound impact on our stress levels and on our health. And in fact, I don’t know about you, Irvine, but when I’m coaching a leader who’s having chronic health issues; maybe they’re having migraines, stomach issues, incredible fatigue, whatever the case, I start to get curious about and look for, is there a toxic triangle somewhere in their relationship system? And a lot of the time there is.
Bridgette: Yeah. So, we are going to talk about it for that reason, but I think it’s important to let our listeners know that Murray Bowen was the person who first observed triangles in families, right? He was counseling families, he was doing a lot of research about family systems, and he observed that triangles are a natural phenomenon, but they are not limited to families. They are in organizations. In fact, they’re, literally, everywhere that human beings are. And once you understand what to look for, you’re going to spot them in your marriage, in your relationship with your kids, in your relationship with peers and colleagues and so forth and so on.
So, that’s just a little bit of an intro, but, Irvine, I’m curious, do you remember when you first heard about triangles or learned about triangles and, sort of, what was the impact of that?
Irvine: Yeah, it’s all your fault because it, actually, was at a workshop that you and Bob Duggan were leading. And it’s the first, I, kind of, heard of triangles, but it never, really, dawned on me, the reality of that and it was like this light shining and this idea bulb going off and was like, Wow. And it, actually, had a, really, profound effect in me because it was very counterintuitive, to me, in one way and then became, Oh my God, that, really, makes sense, and it brought to light at that stage, I was, actually, in a transition in my life.
I was, actually, moving away from being CEO of an organization and into the business that I now have. And it, really, helped in that transition because it brought to light so many of the relationships that I was calling dysfunctional within the organization. And so, it was, really, a powerful idea for me and it, really, helped me put it in context and, actually, I said to myself, God, I wish I’d learned that six years ago, and that would’ve helped me to navigate some of those most troubling episodes that I had when I was leading that organization.
Bridgette: It’s interesting that you say that because, I think, another benefit of learning about triangles is that once you understand how they operate, they, really, help you navigate those political entanglements that are a fact of organizational life.
Bridgette: And I, occasionally, will hear clients say to me, Oh, I hate politics and I hate people who play politics. You know? And politics are not, necessarily, bad, they just are. I think about in a family system, if you have a toddler, a three year old, they’re playing politics, because what do they learn to do early on? If dad doesn’t give them what they want, they go to mom and they learn how to play the parents against each other, expertly.
And so, playing politics is just part of relationship systems, and if you understand triangles, which are, in essence, the basic building block of organizational politics, you can, kind of, maneuver your way in and through them with a little bit more ease. Yeah. All right. So, Irvine, those are the benefits of understanding triangles, but let’s start with the basics. So, what are triangles?
Bridgette: And why do we form them all of the time?
Irvine: So, it’s a, really, interesting question because I think if you ask someone, kind of, what’s the basis of an organization or a family, people will say, Oh, it’s two people in a relationship and you form a relationship with another person and another person. And we, kind of, think of organizations as, kind of, sets of relationships. And yet, in reality, what this notion gets at is, actually, two people are not the most stable form of relationship, it’s, actually, a triad, it’s a triangle. And the reason why that is, is because when two people are in a relationship, invariably, what happens is there are occasions of stress between them.
And so, what happens when that stress or anxiety happens is that it is only natural that when we experience conflict or we experience stress and anxiety, that we want to spread that out and to bring someone in because we want someone to understand what we’re going through, it happens very naturally. And so, we spread it over a larger geography and, therefore, it just happens intuitively, naturally. And so, if you think about some of our family systems, I’m sure if you reflect back, look at different scenarios where this just happens so easily.
So, to married people, they have an argument, both of them are feeling uncomfortable after the argument. What’s the most natural thing, say in this day, for one of the spouses to do? She’ll call her girlfriend and say, hey, you want to go out for a glass of wine? And they have a glass of wine, and what happens there is, of course, we have a little bit of venting about, Oh, you’re going to can’t believe what just happened and he said this and I did this or this and the other. And so, there you go, that’s a perfect example of a triangle.
And how many times have we done the, guilty? I am so guilty of that. Yeah. And then the second one is, think about a child, maybe the son is having issues with their father and they’re in school, the mother comes to pick them up, they’re in the car, and what happens in the car? Well, you can’t believe what dad did and et cetera. And so, the son intuitively is trying to bring the mother onto his side and relieve some of that anxiety and stress that he’s feeling with his father. And then, here we are in, as we record this, in the midst of November, we are going into holiday season and I’m sure people here have meals that are coming up. And you know what happens?
We’ve siblings that don’t see eye-to-eye and here we are, we’re going to gather. And so, before the gathering, we’ll call another one and say, Oh, I don’t know how this is going to go and she’s going to come up and she’s going to say that and cetera, cetera. And all of that is, instead of confronting the person directly, what happens, of course, is we’re spreading that anxiety; and, really, anxiety here is the culprit, it’s a way of managing our anxiety. And while it may seem relieving to do that, you, kind of, feel, oh, it’s so good to offload onto another person.
We have to be careful because, in reality, we’re not solving the problem, we’re just bringing another person into it and we, really, haven’t dealt with the core issue, which was the originator of the problem. So, those are all great examples of the home front, Bridgette. How about at work? Because you mentioned this is, totally, applicable in all relationships that we have.
Bridgette: Oh, no doubt. And I could relate to all the examples that you just shared, and I bet our listeners could too. And, again, emphasizing that anxiety is what breeds triangles, right? So, that’s true in the family system, it’s true in the work system. I think it’s important to say that a triangle doesn’t become a triangle until anxiety enters the picture. So, if you have three people sitting in a conference room working on a project together, that’s not a triangle, that’s just three people working together, until conflict enters in.
So, imagine these three people having a meeting at first, everything just seems fine and they’re discussing how to move forward with this project and overcome some of the obstacles in the way. And two people in that triad start to, really, disagree about the best way forward. They can’t seem to find common ground, they can’t seem to figure their way through it, and the conflict and the tension between them starts to become palpable. Ah, now we start to have a triangle because what do each of them start to do, quite naturally, is they look to the third person sitting there with, kind of, imploring eyes like, come on, get in the middle of this, take a side, right?
And that person’s sitting there going, ah, what do I do? So, a triangle is born. And, probably, after the meeting, you would see one or both of those disagreeing colleagues try to get the other one, right? Walking down the hall, on their side. All right. So, that’s one. I think another one, let’s say you have a team, there’s a new boss, and that boss has a completely different style from the previous one, and the employees don’t like it. They don’t, really, like how this boss is running the team, and that makes them anxious and they don’t, really, feel like they can, directly, talk about any of this with their boss.
And so, what do they do? They talk amongst themselves. Lots of conversations, right? Back and forth, where they commiserate about this new boss that they don’t like. Well, what might be another example? Let’s say you have on your team a very difficult employee, maybe stylistically, they’re just, kind of, hard to be around. They’re loud, they interrupt people, sometimes, maybe, they make off-putting comments, they’re not a bad person, but, stylistically, they’re rough around the edges.
And, again, as that produces anxiety in the team and the colleagues, that anxiety starts to bubble up and then they begin to talk about this employee and the impact that he’s having on the team; never having a direct conversation with that person. Irvine, can you relate to all of these?
Irvine: Oh, boy, can I relate to all of those; being there, lived that. Try to work through the tension as well. But there’s a question I have that comes to mind then. Because I think, and just for, kind of, clarity, perhaps, there are times when we just want to vent and, and, basically, all we’re doing is venting, we’re not looking for anything, we’re just trying to get something off our chest. And what’s the difference between that and something, then, that’s toxic. Because I think there is a difference there.
Bridgette: Sure. Because we all do have times where we need to vent.
Bridgette: And in and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with that. So, that’s a good segue into what makes a triangle toxic. But let me just point out what makes a triangle healthy, because not all triangles are toxic. So, a good example of a healthy triangle is when a married couple is experiencing discord and disagreement and tension and you know what they decide to do? They say, we need to go to counseling and sort some of these things out, and they find a, really, good counselor and they each show up to the therapy in a very committed way. And that counselor would, what does the counselor do?
Listen, draw out the couple, help them see things in a new way. And lo and behold, over time the couple’s marriage grows stronger and then they no longer need to see the counselor and they go on their merry way. And so, all healthy triangles follow that pattern, where the person who’s being brought in operates as a resource to the other two, helping the other two to solve their problem, directly, with one another and in a productive way. But toxic triangles operate, completely, differently, right? All right. So, let’s talk about some of the characteristics of a toxic triangle.
So, one of them is that somebody in a toxic triangle often gets stuck, and it’s, usually, the leader, in what’s called the stress position, where they are absorbing all of the anxiety or a disproportionate portion of it, and they feel responsible. What do they feel responsible for? The conflict and discord of the other two. And so, this person, let’s say a leader, is now wringing their hands and trying to figure out how am I going to solve this relationship issue? How am I going to get these two people to like each other? How am I going to get them to work cooperatively? And they’re waking up at three in the morning trying to figure this out, while the other two people, in this case, employees, are sleeping peacefully. Because they’re glad for the leader to take this on, they don’t want to be responsible for it, right?
So, to our listeners, I’m curious if you’ve ever found yourself in that position, where your own anxiety about the conflict of two other parties is so great that you carry that responsibility as if it’s yours to own. So, that is one characteristic of a toxic triangle. I think another one is that in toxic triangles, people aren’t, really, thinking. At least they’re not thinking clearly. What they’re doing is trading anxiety back and forth. Sharing complaints back and forth. But to your point, Irvine, in terms of, actually, thinking creatively about the problem, the underlying problem, that’s, typically, not happening, because people are stuck right? In old perspectives, in old grudges, in ways of seeing things. Yeah.
So, the anxiety keeps circulating and the conversations keep happening, but forward progress doesn’t. And then, maybe the last one, although, we could, probably, talk about many, many other characteristics, but the last one to share with our listeners is to watch out for how a toxic triangle spreads beyond the original triangle. So, you know how, Irvine, you were saying that a two person relationship is, inherently, unstable, and so they bring in a third person? Well, that is great for a while, but what if in that triangle; the anxiety gets, again, so high that the triangle, the original triangle, can’t contain it.
So, then, one person in that triangle brings in somebody else, and now you have an interlocking triangle and it spreads like wildfire. And in an organization, you can have hundreds of interlocking triangles, none of which, by the way, are, necessarily, solving the, actual, issue.
Bridgette: Yeah. So, that’s what toxic triangles are all about. And so, I’m curious for you, Irvine, you intimated at the beginning that when you learned about this, you were like, oh my gosh, I wish I had this sooner. So, I’m guessing you’ve been involved in a toxic triangle, or you.
Irvine: Yeah. If there was a poster with toxic triangle, I would be the face on the cover of the poster. I just had a, really, interesting situation, where I was leading an organization, I had hired someone to come in to be an executive assistant to one of the VPs, and I knew her well, I thought she was going to do great. And lo and behold, they started having lots of issues between them. And what started happening was that each of them would come to me separately and they would vent about the other person. It, initially, began, what they were doing wrong, but then it just was everything was annoying them, I just don’t like the way they say this or do that or whatever.
I was horrified because I felt a little guilty that I’d hired the person, so I, kind of, felt responsible for this situation. And so, I took on the burden and I just felt incredible emotional weight about it, and when I think back, I would have lunch with each of them separately. And, basically, the lunch was just them complaining about that. And then the lunch would end with, I’m so glad that you understand where I’m coming from. And it was almost an admission that I was backing their situation. And then I go, Well, I don’t want to back their situation. And I, really, didn’t know what I could do about it. And I was losing sleep about this. And then what did I do? I go to the COO, and I said, Oh my God, I’m in this situation.
So, I was, kind of, feeling so much stress and anxiety about this situation that I had to offload on him. And so then I dragged him into them and this is the situation and what should I do? And so, really, and this was a communication issue. No one’s dealing with this communication issue. And not any of that there, but there was a point in the triangle as well, where because I knew the executive assistant and I was, kind of, thinking, well, I, kind of, back her side, even though I wasn’t saying, what was happening was that was being felt by the VP.
And so, he was getting even more reactive when he thought that I was backing her side as well, and it just, really, spread through the organization. The COO told me once, everyone’s talking about this, everyone knows about it.
Bridgette: Oh, God.
Irvine: And so, everyone’s being brought into it. I have to say that the way it was resolved was not by resolving it, because I didn’t know what to do and, basically, the executive assistant left and resigned, and that’s, really, how it was, it wasn’t, really, resolved as well. So, yes, and all of that was happening, and this was going on over, I would say a year and a half.
Bridgette: Ooh. Ooh. You were like, as you’re talking, it’s as if you were a ping pong ball, right? Being hit back and forth between these two people.
Bridgette: And you felt so stuck, I can hear that.
Irvine: Yes. Yeah.
Bridgette: Did it affect your health in any way?
Irvine: It, really, did. I just had increasing anxiety. I would go into work and I could just feel my heart racing. I could just. So, really, I was going in with this elevated anxiety at work. I had sleep issues at night. And I, normally, don’t, I would just feel exhausted, so I just felt, emotionally, exhausted, sometimes by lunchtime and feeling I just want to go home.
Bridgette: Wow. Big impact on you.
Bridgette: I can relate to that example. So, I think, maybe, the most difficult triangle I was part of, was many, many, many years ago on the home front, when my son became a teenager. He’s now 34, so this was a long time ago. And when kids become teenagers and get a little ornery, a little obstinate, and he was a great kid, but he was a teenager. And around this time, he and his father started to have some conflict and they had never, previously, had it.
Bridgette: They were just best friends, so this was a new disruption, shall we say, in our family system. And it gave me great pause. And as it continued, and as they became more conflicted with one another, and they’d have their skirmishes and so forth, what do you think started to happen? Well, they each started coming to me to talk about the other.
Bridgette: Just like your employees did, right? Had my son going, oh my gosh, mom, he is just being too hard on me, don’t you see it? And then, of course, my husband at the end of the day would be like, Ugh, Sam is just driving me crazy and this, that, and the other thing. And I felt caught in the middle. But even more than that, the anxiety was so intense, because I realize now, in reflection, I began to feel responsible for their relationship mending. And I was the one waking up at three in the morning with a stomach ache about it. And I would often say something to each of them, and they would feel like I was taking their side, right? Oh, good, she’s on my side.
And then, I remember this moment in time, when I woke up in the triangle, literally, I awoke and I realized I was in the stress position; that I had fallen into this trap of being responsible, and I said, No more. I’m going to let this go and they’ll figure it out. It may not happen in the time I want it to or the way I want it to, but they’ll figure it out. And I stopped not only being responsible, but I just became, kind of, a neutral listener, and lo and behold, of course, they did figure it out. And I stopped waking up at three in the morning. So, they’re tough, these toxic triangles are tough.
Irvine: They are so tough. Yeah.
Bridgette: So, Irvine, I’m guessing our listeners are like, Okay, tell us how to get out of them, but I have one more question before we talk about that. Is there anything else? We’re talking about the signposts of toxic triangles. Is there any other characteristic or signposts that people can watch out for?
Irvine: There is one, and I, actually, alluded to it, I think when I was describing, and that is very often when a triangle becomes toxic, what you tend to find is that you have the odd man out, or the odd person out, who, really, what happens is, it’s, invariably, the two people will cozy up to each other, and that’s exactly what I was doing with my executive assistant. There was a history there between us, so we started cozying up, and what was happening was that we were having lunches and the other person, the VP was not being invited, and sometimes she would, directly, email me, he would not be included.
And so, then, is that what happens is, of course, that triggers that, and that was happening, so, then, what you were getting from him was some more reactive behavior because he felt he was being left out of the loop. There was something going on behind his back, and all of that happening, which you see very often in a toxic triangle.
Bridgette: Yeah. It ups the ante, right? Because being in the outside position of a triangle when the other two are cozying up, as you said, is so triggering. It goes back to our DNA as human beings, where if we were left out of the tribe, we didn’t survive, right?
Bridgette: So, it lights us up like a Christmas tree, and then we start reacting and trying to get on the inside and now the whole thing is lit up, right?
Irvine: Oh, totally.
Bridgette: That’s, really, good. Oh, and what I think is interesting, and I’ll share, is a colleague of mine was saying that in his family system, he often found himself in a triangle with his daughter and his wife, who were home all day together while he was at work. And sometimes he would say or do things that they didn’t like or agree with, he’d come home from work and he said, All I had to do was put one foot in the door and I could tell without anybody saying anything, whether they had been talking about me that day, and I was in the outside position, I was odd man out. It was just in the air.
Bridgette: Yeah. So, we sense these things in systems, right? We pick up on it.
Irvine: Yeah. Absolutely. Yeah.
Bridgette: Okay. So, let’s get down to brass tax, so to speak.
Bridgette: What are we going to do? We find ourselves in a toxic triangle, what are some ways or some strategies that will help us, essentially, reposition ourselves or lower the anxiety in that very intense triangle?
Irvine: Yeah. So, it’s a great question. I think the first thing I want to say is there’s no such thing we should avoid triangles altogether, because it’s innate within us. What we’re trying to say is how do we make the triangles that we’re in, healthy ones and avoid them turning toxic? So, I just want to, maybe, plant three ideas for people to think about. The first one is, can we practice emotional neutrality? And it is so seductive, so seductive to want to take sides with one of the person.
And in a way, when you think about it, we just feel good; we feel that someone’s confiding in us, we have this person on our side. And yet, what happens, of course, when we go into that and we’re seduced by that, is that it keeps the anxiety circulating and it gives the illusion that the other person is solving the problem in some way, and they are, really, not. We’re not dealing with the issue. So, can we, in some way, avoid that seduction and attempt to be somewhat, emotionally, neutral, so that we’re listening without feeling that we’re, actually, actively taking sides with another person? And then following up from that, can we be a resource?
One of the things that I mentioned in my triangle was that we never talked about the issue. We just talked about people’s emotions and feelings and et cetera. And at the core of this was let’s just talk about some of the problems, what are the problems? What’s happening? Can there be a solution? What could we try? And so, instead of the leader, in my case, taking responsibility, but my taking responsibility for a problem that, really, is with the other two people, and it’s, really, to say, it’s your responsibility. Let me help you come up, brainstorm, try some things that you might want to use with the other person. And then the last one is just keep thinking for yourself.
Because what happens is, at times, you can just become, there’s so much intensity in the emotions that, really, you’d become enmeshed with that other person. And so, what you want to try and do is, really, make sure that you’re thinking for yourself, and you’re also staying connected with the other two people. Because what happened, of course, in my example, was that I, kind of, lost connection with the VP, and so can we remain connected to the other two people and, really, put the responsibility back in them and help them, really, begin to think clearly about what’s happening and come to some solutions.
Bridgette: Well, those are, really, good suggestions. As I’m listening to you, the thing that strikes me as, particularly, challenging is that emotional neutrality piece.
Irvine: Oh, yeah.
Bridgette: Right? Because as you said, you used the word, seductive, and it is. And I think another thing we need to share, because it’s a nuanced distinction here. When we say practice emotional neutrality, we’re not saying, especially to those of you who are leaders, we’re not saying don’t do anything in a triangle. Let’s say two employees come to you and they’re at war with each other. We’re not saying, ah, just sit there and listen. We’re saying don’t take sides with people, but take a side with issues. Take a stand on an issue. Get clear, it comes back to what we were saying about do your own thinking.
So, if they are in conflict over some element of the rational system, right? Like what procedures should we use or what priorities should we have? The leader needs to speak to that, that’s very different from cozying up to one person or allowing someone’s personality to, sort of, dominate, right?
Irvine: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Can you think of anything else that, kind of, what would you say is the most challenging part of getting unstuck in a toxic triangle?
Bridgette: Well, I think it always comes back to managing your own anxiety. Because until you do that you’re going to be part of the reactive patterns that are circulating. So, you have to take a breath, you have to figure out how to look at the situation a little bit differently, and you have to calm your nervous system, right?
Bridgette: So, what do you think, Irvine? What’s a practice that we can leave our listeners with so they’ll be less stuck?
Irvine: Well, let’s build, and that’ll allow you to stay alive there, take a breath. Let’s talk about, maybe, hitting the pause button here, because what we’ve been talking about, how intuitive this is, how reactive it is, how we can at times be involved in one without even thinking, how did I get there? And triangles are a way of relieving these unresolved tensions between ourselves and groups of people. And it is a pattern, which we can get into without, consciously, thinking we’re there.
So, maybe, let’s create a little practice where we could become more thoughtful, more aware when a triangle is about to be born. We know those moments is when someone comes to you, kind of, those moments when someone says, can we have a conversation? What about? Oh, it’s about Bob. And so, as soon as you hear something like that, it’s like, this could be a triangle trying to form. Or you get a phone call from a sibling, and he says, Oh, we need to talk about our sister. And so, these are little trigger points where it’s like, Oh, okay.
And so, just, kind of, be aware of those patterns. And then whenever you’re in that situation, can you just take a deep breath in and out and then in, and then, really, become conscious about the impact that you’re about to have with that other person. And, maybe, ask a question. And there’s a, really, great question we could ask, which is, is what I’m about to do a short-term Band-Aid that’s going to, ultimately, escalate anxiety and spread it to others in the system? And if you’re answering, yes, to that, don’t do it.
Bridgette: Just don’t do it.
Irvine: Don’t do it. Just don’t do it. Yeah. So, I think it’s that, and it’s that, kind of, be aware of the pattern and then ask that question, Am I about to, really, help what this issue is about or am I just perpetuating and, potentially, making toxic, this triangle?
Bridgette: I, really, like that, Irvine. And I like how you can hit the pause button, both when you are about to be triangled, so someone is bringing you in, or you’re feeling anxious and you are about to bring a third party in, either way, pausing and breathing and asking that question. Yeah. I love that. I hope people are encouraged. Toxic triangles are a part of life, but we don’t have to stay stuck in them, right? And not every triangle is toxic. So, again, to your point, Irvine, we’re not saying run to the nearest exit whenever you’re in a triangle, but rather to recognize that they are everywhere, they’re just nature’s way of relieving stress.
The real question is what position are you in, in that triangle? And how are you showing up in it? And as a resilient leader, you can show up in ways that calm that triangle and lead people to new discoveries and insights, which, really, turn it from toxic to healthy. Yeah. Well, Irvine, thank you, as always, for having this conversation, I loved it. I learned some things, even though I’ve known about triangles, listening to you and your example where you said you’re the poster child for it or you were.
Irvine: I was. Hopefully, I’m a little more informed now.
Bridgette: Yes, yes.
Irvine: But it is difficult. It’s not easy, but it’s, I think with that clarity and that insight, we can, really, help ourselves.
Bridgette: We can. And it takes courage. It takes courage to do that, and so, actually, that is what our next episode is going to be all about, is the courage to lead. And I am so looking forward to talking about that with you, Irvine.
Irvine: Me too.
Bridgette: Take care, everybody. Thank you for listening along with us. We will see you next time.
Irvine: Thanks, everyone, have a great week ahead.
Bridgette: Bye. Bye.