Don’t Bogart That Leadership — Burning Man’s Not a Zero Sum Game

Not long ago I overheard a discussion between two OG Burners about leadership.

Leadership at Burning Man, one said to the other, isn’t just management. Just because someone has managerial powers – they can set schedules or assign shifts – doesn’t make somebody a leader in our culture.

No, the other one agreed. But if leaders aren’t managers, does that mean leaders are the visionaries? The people who have the big ideas to make things happen?

Oh come on, said the first one. We both know brilliant visionaries who couldn’t lead a picnic. You wouldn’t want them in any kind of leadership position: just because someone has ideas doesn’t make them a leader in Burning Man culture.

Okay, sure, the second one said. But then … if a leader isn’t the manager, and a leader isn’t a visionary, what is a leader in Burning Man? What does leadership mean?

This is especially complicated in a do-ocracy, where on the one hand we all have to band together to do something as extraordinary as building a city – but on the other hand, everyone is encouraged to be their own visionary, and to not wait for approval from some external source to do what needs doing.

What does leadership mean in this kind of culture?


Default World, Default Leadership


The question of what “leadership” is and how to cultivate it is a massive industry, filled with books, gurus, mailing lists, and consulting fees based on easily memorizeable slogans with the shelf life of a TED Talk. But whatever the high-minded rhetoric, “leadership” in conventional organizations tends to default to one of two practical meanings, neither of which can possibly work with Burning Man culture.

The first is power: leaders really are managers, they are the people who ultimately have their hands on the levers of administration, and when they make a decision everybody is ultimately expected to fall in line because might makes right. This, of course, is wholly incompatible with do-ocracy.

The second is that the leader is ultimately whoever provides the money. Funding equals influence. We’ve all seen it happen. Once again, though, it’s completely unusable for us: a culture that values decommodification can’t locate leadership in funding. By definition.

So the two most common shortcuts that most organizations use to settle these questions are not available to us in either practice or theory.

But if we can’t look for Burning Man leadership in either power or funding, management or vision, where do we find it?

We start by stepping back from ideas and looking at practice: when Burning Man culture is working, when it’s at its best, who is leading, who is being led, and what do they all do?


Volunteers and Amateurs make Burning Man happen


Burning Man is unique in that it isn’t created by “Burning Man.” Wherever Burning Man happens it’s created by the people who show up, not by the people ostensibly running things. Critics say that this immense culture of volunteerism is exploitative – that people should be paid for the labor that they do. And there’s something to that. (We recently devoted a whole year to looking at questions of art and money, and “starving artist” isn’t an ideal we think anybody should shoot for.) But the culture of volunteerism – the fact that it’s passionate volunteers and amateurs constantly developing this culture in their own image – is also what keeps Burning Man from becoming driven by economics, from becoming professionalized and slick and predictable.

Burning Man’s culture of volunteerism, in other words, is not simply a response to limited funding: it is a fundamental condition. If you take away people’s ability to step up and engage in a do-ocracy– if you say “let the professionals handle it” for every important decision – then you are no longer doing Burning Man. The culture must resist professionalization, and Burning Man’s culture of volunteerism is the front line in that process.

Volunteering for Burning Man – by which I mean not just “The Burning Man Project” but everything in the culture, including Regionals, theme camps, and art projects – is therefore a unique experience (I can tell you that first hand) and almost entirely unlike volunteering anywhere else.

How is it different? Oh I’m glad you asked.


Vive la Difference


The first major difference is the status with which volunteers are accorded. In almost any other organizations, to be a volunteer means to be low on the totem pole. It’s almost a stigma: you’re not even necessarily really “with” the organization you’re volunteering for. The distinction between “staff” and “volunteers” is ironclad. At Burning Man, on the other hand, the distinction is wafer thin – if it’s useful at all. Burning Man volunteers are at the highest levels of the organization, they are staff, in pretty much every meaningful way.

Theme camps, regional events – any significant effort in Burning Man culture has volunteers at all levels of the effort. Far from being a stigma, to be a volunteer is to be recognized as a cultural co-creator. You have access to a level of status that is simply not available to volunteers almost anywhere else.

It goes further. In most organizations, the higher up in the organizational echelon staff get, the more important and meaningful the tasks they get to do are. The lower you are in the organization, the less important and less meaningful the tasks get, until you come to volunteers, who are given what is essentially leftover work, the least meaningful and the least important.

But at Burning Man, volunteers not only have the capacity to do work that is as important and meaningful as anything else people do, but are specifically encouraged to find the work that is intrinsically meaningful to them and to do that, even if it takes them outside of the existing organizational structures. In fact, in Burning Man culture people are encouraged to create their own organizational structures if it enhances their capacity to engage in intrinsically meaningful work.

As a result, volunteers in Burning Man culture have access to importance, to relevance, and to intrinsic motivation that in most places is hoarded by the people at the top of the organizational chart. This not only lets them act in ways that are meaningful to them, but to use their skills to their fullest, and develop new skills to perform tasks. Further, volunteers have opportunities usually denied them to create social capital. Because they’re not “just” volunteers, and neither are the people they work with, and because they can make decisions and engage in meaningful work and develop skills, they have things to offer one another that are unrestricted by centralized authority. Their social capital is meaningful, and it’s theirs to use.

All of which is to say that in conventional leadership culture, there are qualities that are hoarded at the top of an organizational structure: access to status, the ability to perform meaningful tasks, to make decisions in accordance with your values, and the ability to establish and use your own social capital. Only the top ranks get to do any of that.

But in Burning Man culture, volunteers say these are the very things they get, and that keep them engaged and coming back. (This is true in my own experience, in those the many volunteers I’ve talked with, and has been recorded by academic research such as that conducted by Katherine Chen, among others.) I think it’s exactly right to say that what differentiates Burning Man’s culture of volunteering from other cultures of volunteering is precisely that in Burning Man, these things are not hoarded at the top, but are spread around as much as possible.

For purposes of easy reference, I’m going to refer to these qualities as:


  • Relevance: volunteers are not lesser than staff, not second-class participants, they are recognized as being as valid and important here as anyone else.
  • Autonomy: Volunteers get to choose what kinds of work are important to them, and make decisions and act according to their own values. This ranges from how they dress – or don’t – to the name they use, to the whether they take this work home with them, to starting new initiatives because they see a need and want to fill it.
  • Competence: Volunteers get a chance to use their skills to the fullest of their abilities. If the work they’re doing now doesn’t properly utilize their skills, and they want complicated and engaged tasks, we’ll find it for them. And if they want to get good at new things, we’ll help with that too.


Not incidentally, Autonomy and Competence here together describe Aristotle’s definition of happiness: which is to work to your capacities towards a goal that you find meaningful. Volunteering for Burning Man is a way for people to do that. Which is huge. It really sets us apart.


  • Finally, volunteers get Relatedness: they not only get a chance to join our existing community, but to form their own communities within it, and to develop social capital and use it meaningfully.


What Leaders Do


So – when volunteering in a Burning Man context is working, when we’re doing it right, volunteers experience Relevance, Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness. And when they’re not experiencing this, something is going wrong, we’re not achieving what we want to. These terms may not be exactly right, there may be better ones, but I think they clearly indicate what we’re getting at. (And, for the record, three of these four – Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness – I’ve cribbed from the Self-Determination Theory school of psychology, which I’ve long admired. This is both a recognition of my intellectual debt to professors Richard Ryan and Edward Deci, and an acknowledgment that maybe we should come up with our own terms at some point).

But broadly speaking, you see what I’m getting at here: whether they’re correctly labeled or not, these are the dynamics that make our volunteer culture unique, and amazing, and functional, and … Burning Man. We don’t hoard Relevance, Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness at the top, we spread them around as much as possible, we want everyone to experience them, and have them as part of their work, and make their decisions based on the fact that they have them.



Okay. So … back to leadership.

If those are the conditions that make our volunteering what it is, that help create do-ocracy, and our organization and culture is based on do-ocratic volunteers at every level …

… then “Leadership” in Burning Man culture is indeed not being a manager or a visionary, but being a person who helps spread and distribute Relevance, Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness. That’s what Leaders do – they create the conditions in which our volunteers and teammates can have that experience of intrinsic motivation, of developing social capital, of using their skills to the fullest, of having a meaningful place in our community, where they do work that is meaningful to them.

They may or may not be managers. They may or not have a team rank, or be official in any way. They may or may not have power of any kind, or new ideas. But whatever the team goal is, whatever vision the team pursues, whatever the specific structure of the team, however decisions get made, wherever money comes from … the leaders are the people who make create the conditions whereby others feel relevant, autonomous, competent, and related. Which means, of course, that indeed anybody can indeed be a leader. Leadership is not a zero sum game.

(It should be noted, of course, that Competence and Autonomy and the rest are not ours to control:  people can simply be these things, and that’s all for the best. But when we form communities, which any team is doing, social dynamics often lead people to feel like they don’t have these things. That they are the province of a few. Perhaps that’s why daily life often feels so dis-empowering.  In any case, these things are not ours to control, but they are things we can encourage and support.)

That, it seems to me, is the fundamental dynamic at work – and it is one that seems to me to emerge out of the 10 Principles. People who are able to act on their own intrinsic motivation are better able to engage in acts of self-expression and immediacy; people who have social capital and recognition are able to more effective give and engage in communal effort; people who feel connected are more apt to participate, and so on down the line.

Now there are many, many leadership techniques that could be compatible with doing this – active listening, delegation, etc. etc. – but such techniques can be used anywhere, from giant impersonal corporations to classroom management. They may be good ideas, but nothing about them is unique to one particular leadership culture or another.

But if you want to know what sets leadership in a Burning Man context apart – if you want to know what our leaders do if they’re doing it right – I think this is likely the answer. They help others participate in do-ocracy by spreading Relevance, Autonomy, Competence, and Relatedness around to everyone they can. They keep these from being hoarded qualities.


Author’s note: I’d like to thank the participants in the “Philosophical Fridays” discussion groups, without whose engagement these ideas would not have developed.

Cover Photo by Scott Stallard

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

7 Comments on “Don’t Bogart That Leadership — Burning Man’s Not a Zero Sum Game

  • Infored says:

    I would have been interested in your take on “Responsibility” both in default and Burning Man worlds in this paper.

    Report comment

  • Shenanigans says:

    I’ve always held that burner leadership was not an end in itself, but simply a tool that is pretty useful for getting shit done.
    I’ve always been a little suspicious of people who only do things so they can be leaders.

    Report comment

  • Megan Miller says:

    Thanks for this, Caveat. I think this brings to light some key elements of truly gratifying teamwork. Leaders “create the conditions in which our volunteers and teammates can have that experience of intrinsic motivation, of developing social capital, of using their skills to the fullest, of having a meaningful place in our community, where they do work that is meaningful to them.” When this works, it’s a beautiful thing to be a part of.

    Report comment

  • Data says:

    Coool, I really like the article

    And, you can make the terms of what creates a do-ocracy into an anagram:

    Or a triangle,
    Autonomy on the bottom,
    Relevance on the left/right
    Competence on the right/left
    and Relatedness as the center.

    Additionally, in my personal opinion, this is another–albeit longer–way to say “morals”.
    In my experience, most people in the burning man community have an aversion to that word, but that really is the essence of what this whole post is about.

    Report comment

  • Cat says:

    This reminds me of the philosophy of holocracy. Something that I found works very well in the corporate world, however I haven’t participated in any BM groups that use this type of leadership (but I might be living under a rock or something…) The only group that I have participated in that has come close is the Rangers, but they use the upside down pyramid. (and obviously have an important hierarchy. Rangers aren’t there to be creative ;3)

    Where can I find out more about Philosophical Fridays is that something that someone like me could participate in? Secondly, I had no idea BMorg had an education department with a curriculum for Burning Man culture. That sounds like the coolest thing ever <3

    Report comment

  • Moonbat says:

    Donuts,.. leaders need to make sure there are donuts.

    Report comment

  • Bubbles says:

    The leader of a Wolf pack is the one who most frequently instigates play. It is followers that define leaders. Leaders cannot define themselves. Who do you most want to follow, the autocrat, or the the one who is having/making the most fun? When are others drawn to you? When you are fun!

    Report comment

  • Comments are closed.