Global Leadership Conference report – what is a “leader” at Burning Man?

Chip Conley

Burning Man, as a culture, now exists to various degrees from San Francisco to Singapore, from Korea and China to Israel, Africa, and Brazil.  Around the world, everyone is attracted to the same flame.

But what does it mean to make the most of these communities?  What does it mean, some 200 regional reps asked themselves in an afternoon session with Chip Conley, to be a leader in Burning Man culture?  If we don’t want to replicate the old “command and control” style of leadership, if we want to do better, if we want to be “servant leaders” … what exactly do we do?

Conley – an entrepreneur hotelier, bestselling author, and member of the Burning Man Project’s board – responded by telling us to look to American psychologist Abraham Maslow.

Conley has considered Maslow to be a blend between his mentor and patron saint for decades.  Conley ran his phenomenally successful business on Maslow’s principles, and was given access to Maslow’s diaries and papers by the late psychologist’s family when preparing his first book “Peak:  how great companies get their mojo from Maslow.”   He’s applied Maslow’s key concepts to everything from employee morale to finding personal fulfillment … and Burning Man.  One imagines he’d buy a used car based on Maslow’s notes in the lining of a Blue Book.

It would seem hackneyed if it didn’t work so well.  In fact, as Conley spoke about “servant leadership” in the context of Burning Man, I realized it’s hard to think of a more apt approach to what “leadership” means in Burning Man culture than Maslow’s.

There are a number of other ways to get at what “leadership” might be in playa culture.  Conley quoted a few, like the Chinese proverb:  “To lead people is to walk behind them.”

That’s pretty good.

Likewise he quoted Max De Pree:  “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality.  The last duty is to say ‘thank you.’  In between, the leader is a servant.”

That’s really good:  if all we took away from Conley’s presentation was that quote, we’d know something valuable about what a good leader does in Burning Man culture.

But no … Conley’s right.  Good as those are, Maslow is still better.

Maslow’s most famous expression of this theory of motivation is his Hierarchy of Needs.  This pyramid shaped diagram has five levels, each with a different fundamental human need on it.  People struggle with the level they’re at until they achieve it, at which point they struggle with the next level, and so on, all the way up.

The bottom most level is basic survival:  do you have food and shelter?  Can you breathe?  Can you sleep?  Interestingly, sex is on this level too.  Sex is a matter of survival?  Actually I’m not sure many burners I’ve met would disagree.

The next level is safety:  security of body, family, health, and means of support (like income).  The level after that is a sense of love and belonging:  friendship, family, and “sexual intimacy” as opposed to sex itself.  I think this is where cuddle puddles belong.

The level after that is esteem:  both self-respect and the respect of others in your community.

Finally, at the top of the pyramid, is self-actualization:  a state of being that one achieves when he is engaged in a meaningful activity that utilizes his full potential.  (That’s remarkably close to Aristotle’s definition of happiness, for those who are playing along at home.)

Conley suggests that the first two levels of the pyramid (survival and safety) lead to motivation.  You do it because you have to.  The next two levels (belonging and esteem) lead to loyalty:  you do it because you want to support the person or organization who offers you belonging and esteem.

But the last level, self-actualization … that leads to inspiration.  You do it because you are inspired.  Because it just matters to you.

Now let’s ask:  what motivates people at Burning Man?  Why do Burners do the things they do?

It’s not for survival.  The idea that we come out to the desert, or go to a regional, in order to increase our chance of survival is nuts.  On the contrary:  much of what Burners do actually puts them at greater risk.  I’m not going to run out of water staying at home all week watching episodes of Deadliest Catch on Netflix.  I might deserve to – but I won’t.

There is sex of course … there are quite a few colossally stupid things we’ll do in order to have colossally stupid sex … but that’s a human constant.  Burners are no hornier than anyone else – just more naked.

The burners around us are not motivated by survival concerns.  People who are concerned about their very survival generally don’t participate in Burning Man.

We’re not motivated by safety either, for the same reasons.  Far from giving us more resources, our participation in Burning Man often takes a huge toll in resources, from money to time spent on art projects, theme camps, mutant vehicles, costumes, and travel.  People who are concerned about their safety and security generally don’t engage with Burning Man.

That’s two levels gone.   Burners don’t, in other words, do any of the things they do because they have to.  That most basic level of motivation isn’t there.

We’re getting closer with the next two levels:  many Burners do get a sense of love and belonging from the community.  It’s doubtless a reason some participate, and a reason they do things for one another.  Burners definitely stick with one another, and express loyalty, out of a sense of love and belonging, and a desire for the community’s esteem.

But I don’t think it explains much of the full range of glorious participant-created art and whimsy.  Someone might do a clean-up shift because they want a sense of belonging to a community (although that’s never a sure thing).  They’re not going to create a 60 foot steel Rubik’s cube.  There are much easier ways of getting a community’s esteem.  Going topless, for example;  or being the guy with the primo stash.

So what would motivate someone to spend years of their life and thousands of their dollars on the amazing things we see at Burning Man, when there are easier ways of getting liked, loved, and laid?

Self-actualization?  The search for meaning?  Yeah – now you’re talking.  Don’t we love Burning Man so much precisely because something about it bypasses so much of the day-to-day bullshit that we’re supposed to care about, and goes straight for the heart, straight for what inspires us?

People do most of the things they do at Burning Man because they’re inspired.  Because they have a vision, and an opportunity … and it matters to them.

It may seem so obvious as to be a tautology, but people are inspired by Burning Man – both as an event and as a culture – because they find it offers them something inspirational to engage in.  A way to express something important about themselves:  an opportunity to engage in an activity they find meaningful, in a way they find meaningful.

You know this.  You’ve felt it.  Most of you felt it that very first moment when you thought “I have to have a piece of this.  I need to engage.”

Some people, yes, see it as a giant party, and some people, yes, come only for a good time.  But I’d wager that the vast majority of Burners who make Burning Man culture what it is are inspired by a deep need to engage in a meaningful activity in a way that utilizes their full creative and human potential.  To self-actualize.  To “be all that they can be” – a slogan the army actually took from Maslow.

It’s what most of us are doing out there.

It may very well turn out that radical self-expression, community, self-reliance, immediacy and all the rest are actually important ingredients of a meaningful life.  I dunno.  Talk amongst yourselves.

But an effective leader in a Burning Man context is clearly someone who helps other burners find meaningful work to do.  Whether that’s putting together a camp, or an art project, or helping protect the privacy of other Burners, the essence of Burning Man leadership has never been “do what I tell you” but “look what you have to offer.”  To turn “gifting” from an abstract thing that one might do to something immediate that one is doing right here, right now, in this moment.

Getting someone to say, to themselves, in a moment of meaningful inspiration:  “Look what I have to offer!”

Not every task that needs to be done, of course, is intrinsically meaningful:  Conley discussed how difficult it was to help the cleaning staff in his hotels feel intrinsically motivated to clean the toilets.  “It turns out,” he acknowledged, “that cleaning toilets isn’t really meaningful.”

But an effective leader can offer them more.  “When, instead of being about the toilets, my housekeepers were given the opportunity to make a serious difference in how good a guest’s stay was,” Conley said, “that was a meaningful activity for them, toilets and included.  What mattered to them, what was meaningful, wasn’t ‘is this spot clean,’ it was ‘am I helping this person have a great time.’  They had to see that human outcome for it to be meaningful, and once it was meaningful they wanted to do it.”

To create meaning, Conley said, “someone must be able to see their impact.”  A servant leader at Burning Man is someone who helps people do that – who helps them self-actualize – and then gets out of the way.

Yeah, that sounds right.

Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man.  His opinions are in no way statements of the Burning Man organization.  Contact him at Caveat (at)

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

8 Comments on “Global Leadership Conference report – what is a “leader” at Burning Man?

  • junko says:

    as with the animal kingdom, the leader is defined by the number of females he has sexual access to. this is really a female definition of leader, but i guess it doesn’t really matter.

    the leader is the one who is getting laid most frequently, not the man orgainizing most of the work and who is a leader of men.

    so i could bring out 50 prostitutes from the bunny ranch and have them all fuck me every day on he playa and i would be the leader of burning man. i would be king; god.

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  • Tiferet says:

    Caveat – one of your more thoughtful essays. Dare I say it was relatively, well, almost ACADEMIC! Nice graph of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which does seem to provide an interesting way to make sense of what goes on out on the Playa and the rest of the Burning Man universe.

    While I agree with Caveat’s assertion that most people who get involved are beyond he first two levels of the pyramid, it seems that junko is intent on living on the bottom of Maslow’s. Good to know the playa can provide a place for everyone!

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  • Major Tom says:

    Well said, sir. One of the best blogs I’ve read on the subject, this resonates with me.

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  • joe says:

    TED has a video clip of Chip Conley talking about his hotels and what makes life worth while. It’s very good. I’d post the link here but my work computer won’t let me.

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  • Andie Grace says:

    Another moment I wish I had seen, captured instead by Caveat’s keyboard. Thanks, amigo. Much food for thought.

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  • you’re a great blogger! ;)

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  • weinstain says:

    for years I have used Maslow’s triangle of need to attempt to understand “alternative” people, goths, etc. (although was part of alternative lifestyles nonetheless–even if by proxy). Of all of Caveat’s recent “essays”, this has the most honesty. The previous ones seemed like elaborate justifications for Burningman going corporate–as if Caveat was a spin doctor/attorney/PR guy. And, that very well may be the case, but some of us still believe (regardless of the money corporate spin going on) that “It may very well turn out that radical self-expression, community, self-reliance, immediacy and all the rest are actually important ingredients of a meaningful life. I dunno. Talk amongst yourselves.” Maybe meaning showed its wicker head back in 1986–it is just now you are trying to bank on it.

    BTW, gentle reader, Maslow created that “graph”/triangle.

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  • If you have the shoe size and elegance right, you’re ready to contemplate padding.

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