An ‘Audience of One’

Dr. Tim Foster - 19 March 2021

It was the strangest subject I had ever taken. Called ‘Advanced Strategic Leadership’, it was an MBA unit that I was taking as part of my Master of Management in the early 2000s. Expecting to learn about business strategy I found myself in a circle with 25 MBA students while the lecturer conducted a full-on gestalt group therapy session. She had students yelling at chairs imagining their boss was sitting there. A student would be called into the circle and asked to act out being the father of the person being examined so they could have an imaginary conversation. It was intense.

The most common issue in the group, and an issue I also experienced, was being driven. These bright young 20-somethings (and this daggy guy in his late 30s) were exhausted, cynical and on the edge of burn out.

What the therapist, (I mean, ‘lecturer’), did was help us identify the root cause of our drivenness. In every case, it was another person who we were driven to please. Fathers, or father figures, were common culprits. For me, it was a particular churchwarden.

In his blog at the St Michael’s Institute, Ed Vaughan describes a guy who, in a supervision session, said, ‘I have this voice in my head. It’s like there is someone always looking over my shoulder, judging me. And I always feel like I am being condemned like I am failing’.

Ed went on to ask him, ‘Does this voice have a name? Is there an actual person associated with it? Is it the voice of someone you know?’ Without hesitation, he named a significant leader in his denomination, someone who had been a formative influence in his life.

This church leader had the same experience that my MBA colleagues and myself had. The desire to please someone else who, for some deep psychological reason, we were driven to gratify.

In his blog, Ed raises the importance of listening to the ‘Audience of One’. He goes on to explain that this expression, refers to caring only what Jesus thinks about what we are doing, as opposed to the crowd of people around us who place (unrealistic?) expectations upon us. The result, sadly, is that we often do find ourselves performing for an audience, but it’s not Jesus. It’s some voice in our head, either named or anonymous, who is passing judgement and bringing condemnation.

He reminds us of the Apostle Paul’s frank declaration to the highly critical Corinthians, ‘I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed I do not even judge myself…It is the Lord who judges me’ (1 Corinthians 4:3-4). Paul doesn’t even include himself in this ‘audience’. It is truly an audience of one.

Having helped us identify the identity of the voice in our heads, our lecturer gave each of us a ‘mantra’. While this has connotations of Eastern religion, she really just meant a ‘slogan’ that we would repeat at certain times to reset our thinking. My ‘mantra’ was to be repeated several times before every interaction I had with the churchwarden who was the voice in my head. I would say ‘Stephen (not his real name), I want you to like me and approve of what I do, but if you don’t then that’s OK’. To this, I added another sentence. ‘It is the Lord who judges me’!

This was a technique to help me focus on an audience of one. It was designed to help me shed the voice of ‘Stephen’ and seek the Lord’s approval alone.

I did this for 3-4 months. Before every phone call, email or meeting with Stephen I would repeat this mantra. Incredibly, it worked! I was far less interested in Stephen’s approval, less driven and more Christ-focussed. My drivenness significantly dissipated and I was spiritually and physically much healthier as a result.

That class taught me nothing about strategy. But it did teach me a great deal about myself and why I felt and behaved the way I did. And it helped me grow and change. It is not often a secular MBA that does this, but it helped me rediscover the wonderful freedom we have in Christ – our audience of one.

Ed Vaughan, ‘Who’s In Your Head’