Burning Man Citizenship, Leaning into Challenges and Good Leadership

As the June solstice nears and our global community marks the day it all began, we share some thoughts from Burning Man Project’s CEO Marian Goodell on what it means to be part of an ever-growing global Burning Man community. These comments were part of her closing remarks at the European Leadership Summit in Aarhus, Denmark, on April 11-14, 2019. 

The European Leadership Summit is one of the most moving events for me. It means so much to be doing what we’re doing and to do it in Europe. What you all are doing in this part of the world, which has its own challenges, its own political friction, its own religious challenges, its own border challenges — I’m really inspired by it. To me, you’ve got bigger challenges than I do in the United States.

And that’s why I’m so touched by the Ukrainian team, which told me a story last night that really reminded me why I do this and why it is really important for you all to do this. Then I want to go through a list of some of the leadership principles that I want to remind us of. 

The Ukrainian team told me how they were at Burning Man working to put together their art and their camp, and their water services hadn’t come yet. And who do you think helped them? The Russian team.

So I really want to remind us that we are — despite what some of our politicians think or say — one big globe of humanity, that Burning Man is not political, it’s not religious, we go beyond borders and we’re really here to help one another. We know that what Burning Man culture can do is give people a sense of change, give people a sense of the world as bigger than themselves and really connect people one on one. That’s the most magical experience. 


Doing the Work for Those Downstream

But sometimes the last group to come online is the group that gets the benefits of all the work that we’ve been doing. So each one of you that is doing the work that you’re doing, and the challenges you have with your governments and in your media, and the interpersonal challenges you have in your community, the rewards of you accomplishing and working through them are absolutely going to be felt downstream. 

So I want to encourage you to continue to lead. Lean into those challenges, learn from those challenges and share your learnings. What I’m doing is really encouraging you to be your best selves, to share with each other, to go beyond the borders. 

And when you go out into the world, I want you to reflect on how the gem of who we are is not always what it looks like to you. It’s not always the folks that might be dressing like you. It’s not always the playful ones. It’s not always the obvious ones. 

There are people looking for a way to be real and to live their lives, and you need to give them an opening to connect and then to give them creative opportunities. We know that the cultural storyline of Burning Man is going to move by gathering in an open place together and storytelling about what’s meaningful, to do things like Burners Without Borders-type projects, to experiment with ideas of governance, and to gather people together that may not go to Black Rock City and give them the chance to tell their stories. 

Graphic illustration of the European Leadership Summit by artist Isabelle Hörl of Amsterdam, Holland.

Leadership Qualities

So I want to walk through leadership qualities in Burning Man culture. We use them inside the organization now to ask ourselves what is it we’re looking for in each other, and we often do it out in the world with the Regional Network. And when we’re hiring someone, we ask essay questions that include some form of questions about these leadership qualities so we can learn more about people. 

One of them is inspiring. A great leader inspires others to be collaborative. A great leader collaborates with all key stakeholders on any issue. 

Active listening and communicating. A great leader actively listens to others ideas and communicates timely and important information. Remember there’s others besides yourself that are working to create Burning Man culture in the world. So take the moment to explain to them what you’ve learned, why it’s important. What are the qualities of what you’ve learned to carry on to the next project or group? 

A great leader is accountable, reliable, and follows through on commitments.

Self-aware. A great leader is self-aware of their abilities, development and communication. That one’s often really challenging because we think we’re self-aware until we do that thing that nobody quite gets why you just did it. And then being available for the feedback is super important. 

Patient. A great leader is patient with themselves and others.

Appreciative. A great leader shows appreciation to everyone who contributed to a particular project or our idea. Remember that one, just a little bit of appreciation goes a long way.

Act with integrity. A great leader has personal integrity and is honest, ethical and professional. It is so hard sometimes when we’re in the groove, we’re letting loose and what is professional starts to look a little different. But if we’re at a Burning Man-related event and we’re in a leadership position, that is the best time to remember that showing up to be representative of the culture is more important than having another cocktail. 

Emotionally intelligent. A great leader is in touch with their emotions, strengths, weaknesses, drives, values, and goals, and recognizes their impact on others. An emotionally intelligent leader also displays empathy for others.

Comfortable in the gray areas. We’ve talked a lot about this one in the organization. Sometimes it’s the hardest one for people that are out in the world. It’s either yes or it’s no, or it’s right or it’s wrong, or it’s black or it’s white, or it’s a rule or no rule. But I think with Burning Man, that’s what we’re doing is creating new rules and new language and new pathways so you need to be comfortable in the gray areas. A great leader has the ability to navigate issues that do not have a clear-cut solution, by using intuition, collaboration and mindfulness.

Looks for great benefit versus the immediate goal. A great leader is focused on the maximum benefit for the community as opposed to the personal or short-term gains. 

Perceives the big picture. A great leader is focused on seeing the largest possible perspective of any particular project and communicates this vision to others on the team. 

Leading by example. A great leader is someone who leads by example and is not afraid to get their hands dirty in the process. I frankly have seen that done so well out in the Regional community. 

Leaves ego behind. A great leader is in it for the greater good and not for the personal gain. Right? It’s not about yourself. It’s not about how others see you as that great leader. If you’re feeling too powerful as a great leader, that’s the time when you should step out of the way and let someone else take the front stage. This always makes me nervous being up here, and when it’s not my turn anymore, I have to be ready to step away. 

Leads outside of the organization in the community. A great leader is one who embodies these values even when they are not on duty.

Open to new ideas. A great leader is someone who is open to new ideas. Curious. A great leader suspends assumptions and judgment and brings inquiry and curiosity to everything you do. 

The last one is Fun. A great leader knows how to make work fun for everyone involved. 


We’re Burning Man cultural citizens, and we’re citizens in our own communities, cities, countries and in the world. And so I shared those leadership principles so you can think about what it means to be a good citizen, a good leader and a good person. And we can embody those qualities and share them with others so that a Burning Man citizen really becomes the best person that each one of us can be.

Thank you! 

Top photo: European community leaders gather at ELS. (Photo by Hervé PHOTOGRAFF)

About the author: Marian Goodell

Marian Goodell

Marian serves as Burning Man Project’s first Chief Executive Officer. She first attended Burning Man in 1995, met Larry and the other organizers in the fall of 1996, and in 1997 helped found the contemporary Burning Man organization. In previous roles, she was the Director of Business and Communications, briefly oversaw the Black Rock City Department of Public Works, and steered the development of the Burning Man Regional Network, which is now on six continents, with more than 300 representatives in 37 countries. Marian is currently leading the organization’s efforts to facilitate and extend the Burning Man ethos globally.

8 Comments on “Burning Man Citizenship, Leaning into Challenges and Good Leadership

  • Rex says:

    Cool. I was wondering where the community went. It used to be online, and ePlaya was always buzzing. But now the online community is dead. How do I find the Global community?

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    • John Barleycorn says:

      Rex –
      My son has been (and may still be) a volunteer for the IT team. I’ll let him know about this, and see if I can put in a good word for an enhanced on-line community. Supposedly there was a plan for that. In the meantime, for better or worse, a lot of us use the various )'( groups on FB. (Probably a less than ideal solution.) Cheers, and keep on burnin’!

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      • James says:

        The BMorg might start by un-fucking eplaya and make it comprehensible again. But they won’t, because they fucked the online community on purpose.

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  • John Barleycorn says:

    I just want to say we are lucky to have someone like Marian as CEO. Keep up the good work!

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  • ShoutingFire has broadcasted most of the event, and still has some on the SoundCloud.

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  • Rita Volkland says:

    Thanks for the guidelines and embodying them as a beacon for all. <3

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  • Bell says:

    As good as it gets. The example of Ukrainian and Russian co-helping is visceral. This article really fleshes out what I’m attempting as I drive around meeting people and gathering images for the Art Atlas: I want to bear witness. It really is that simple. And some big percentage of what grew in me, grew through the culture of burning man, on playa and off. Gratitude.

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  • vbucks codes says:

    Thank you so much for all this hard work and dedication to taking the pulse of all burners and looking forward to a better future. I am so proud of this endeavor and glad to be a part of it.

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