What is Burning Man Leadership? A Model

It’s a cliché at this point to suggest that there is a crisis of faith in leadership and expertise across Western culture. Maybe someone is shocked by my saying that, but it’s hard to imagine who.

A sense that we have all been betrayed by the people who were supposed to lead us is widespread, as is a sense that those leaders are not just unethical but incompetent. Elite leadership would have run the global economy off a mountain cliff in 2008, as opposed to merely running it into a deep ditch, if working people hadn’t bailed out a plethora of MBAs from exclusive institutions. Telling someone “I’m a member of Congress” does not inspire confidence in your decision-making skills. Telling someone “I have a PhD” gets about the same reaction as admitting “I’m an alcoholic.”

If these people are actually competent, then they have a serious image problem.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that one of the most requested insights that Burning Man gets asked for is leadership advice. The requests come not just from within our community (How do we organize a Regional event? How do we lead a local nonprofit?) but from outside as well: academics want to study our leadership processes, and corporations want to know how we can motivate so many people to do so much without ever once advertising.

Much of what they don’t understand — what they often refuse to understand — is how much of Burning Man’s success has come from doing things that support people, rather than leading them. They don’t understand that leadership is not some abstract quality we train for (although these days the Burning Man Project is big on training for emotional-intelligence skills like active listening and nonviolent communication, all of which I’m skeptical of). Rather, it’s a quality that emerges out of the way we try to be helpful. We’re not helpful because we’re leaders; we’re leaders because we’re helpful.

Although this is true, leaving it there is in many ways a dodge. “Be helpful” is not terribly insightful. It does in fact appear that Burning Man leadership has a particular quality that is distinct but, like Burning Man itself, difficult to pin down. What more can we say about it? What is “Burning Man leadership?” What is leadership actually for in this culture, and what does it do?  

Burning Man is Hard to Pin Down, But It’s Not Generic

Most of the descriptions of leadership in conventional organizations do not apply to Burning Man.  Generally, leadership in organizations is determined by administrative power (the person who makes decisions about the use of institutional resources like scheduling and requisitions is in charge), or funding (the person who provides the money is in charge). Sometimes, leadership is supposed to follow the person who has the biggest vision: do what the visionary tells you.  

None of these make sense in a Burning Man context. As a do-ocracy, Burning Man specifically doesn’t say “Do what the administrators tell you.” On the contrary, the culture tries to put the people actually doing the work in charge of the work, and encourages them to go do their own thing if the administrative levers aren’t sufficiently helpful to them. As for whoever has the money being in charge in a decommodified culture, that’s a non-starter. Nor are visionaries leaders: you can absolutely help someone achieve their vision, but Burning Man culture encourages you to have your own vision as well. So the most common criteria for leadership simply don’t apply in Burning Man culture, and are even counter-productive.  

Burning Man’s own descriptions of its leadership practice have never fully addressed this issue. They have mostly centered around communications trainings and identifying 18 leadership qualities that they believe effective leaders should have. These are:

  1. Inspiring
  2. Collaborative
  3. Actively Listening and Communicating
  4. Accountable
  5. Self-Aware
  6. Patient
  7. Appreciative
  8. Acts with Integrity
  9. Emotionally Intelligent
  10. Comfortable in the Gray Areas
  11. Looks for the Greatest Benefit vs. The Immediate Goal
  12. Perceives the Big Picture
  13. Leads by Example
  14. Leaves Ego Behind
  15. Leads outside of the organization, in the community
  16. Open to New Ideas
  17. Curious
  18. Fun!!!!

These seem to me to be excellent traits for a leader to have but in a way that applies to any leader, anywhere. Wouldn’t we want a corporate CEO to have these qualities? A President of the United States? A college professor, a Boy Scout leader, and a tennis coach?  Yes I think we would.  Even those contexts in which things like rampaging ego and a lack of accountability are celebrated in practice, people will still talk a big game about leaving ego aside and having fun.

Which means these qualities tell us little about Burning Man leadership specifically. We can want to cultivate them, sure, but they do not tell us anything about what leadership in a Burning Man context is, what it does, how it works, or why. What makes Buring Man leadership different from any generic model of servant leadership? Those questions still need to be answered.

What follows is a proposal, developed over time in consultation with Burning Man staff and volunteers, to understand that difference. (I have written about it in more detail elsewhere, but there’s money involved.)

How Leaders Help

To understand Burning Man leadership, we begin with the experiences of the people in it specifically our volunteers. Burning Man’s leadership model, whatever it is, is most powerfully present in the experience of our volunteers, precisely because Burning Man is a volunteer culture: it was founded by volunteers, frequently run by volunteers, and volunteers do almost every job, at every level of the organization. People put in tremendous, even overwhelming, amounts of effort as volunteers to make Burning Man happen, in Black Rock City and around the world.

This is not happenstance, it’s not because the culture hasn’t professionalized yet it’s the reason the culture exists in the first place. Burning Man culture can only exist when it is the product of volunteers. If you take away people’s ability to step up and engage in a do-ocracy if you say “only the professionals should handle it” for every important decision then you are no longer doing Burning Man because you are no longer a co-created, participatory, experience.  

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 as much an essential experience as it is a unique experience.

So let’s start there. What makes it unique?

Based on direct experience, discussions with longstanding Burning Man volunteers and volunteer managers, and on the limited academic research available (particularly Katherine Chen’s), we believe that Burning Man volunteers have unique access to five characteristics that are otherwise almost entirely absent, not just from volunteer experiences, but employment and work experiences elsewhere.  

The first is Relevance: in most organizations, volunteers are the lowest people on the totem pole. Do they even work for the organization? “Well, they volunteer …” but at Burning Man, volunteers are universally understood to be essential, and are honored and celebrated. They, and the work they’re doing, really matter, and are treated as such.

The second is Agency: volunteers don’t get slotted into just a few tasks, they can choose from an extraordinary range of tasks that they want to perform. And if they can’t find one that works for them, they can usually invent it. Further, they can often perform these tasks in the ways that are most meaningful to them: in a costume, or naked, using whatever name they like, or (as often as possible) in whatever manner seems best to them. They have a tremendous amount of Agency.

The third is Competence: in almost every field of endeavor at Burning Man, people are able to work to their capacities and to push their own limits when they want. They are rarely, if ever, asked to do a task more poorly than they are capable of. Instead, volunteers get a chance to use their skills to the fullest of their abilities. If the work they’re doing now just doesn’t properly utilize their skills, and they want to do it better, we’ll encourage them. If they want complicated and engaged tasks, we’ll try to find it for them. And if they want to get good at new things, we’ll help with that too.

The fourth is Relatedness: Far from being cogs in a machine, volunteers quickly become a valued part of an extensive community. Burning Man is a social capital system, where the work you do and the experiences you have with people generate social capital, and volunteers get to be a valued part of that.  And because they are relevant, and have agency, their social capital can be used in ways that are important and meaningful to them. Volunteers not only get a chance to join our existing community, but to form their own communities within it, to develop social capital and use it meaningfully.

Finally, volunteers have access to Engagement: Volunteers are not expected to be faceless or voiceless workers they are encouraged to be distinct personalities and express their uniqueness. Moreover, they should expect to frequently encounter other distinct and unique personalities who will make their work weird and sublime. Very little is likely to be bland, and so volunteers are engaged at a level that is distinct from most other experiences.

These qualities are all clearly in line with, and even emerge from, the 10 Principles. (A culture that values Radical Self-Expression will clearly value engagement; a culture that values Inclusion and Communal Effort will clearly value relatedness, and so on. It’s much harder to make a case that the 10 Principles call for someone to “perceive the big picture” or be inspiring.) Because the re-arranged first letters of each of these qualities creates the anagram RACER, we refer to these five qualities as “RACER qualities,” because it’s too damn handy, even though it sounds like something you’d hear at a motivational seminar for high school athletes.

RACER qualities exist to some extent in all organizations, but they are almost universally hoarded at the top of the pyramid: only C-level executives and senior management get to have agency, feel relevant, tailor their jobs to best utilize their full capacities, effectively create and utilize social capital, and be a big personality. Generally, when lower-level workers do get these qualities, it is in spite of the organization, not because of it. Most people don’t get to experience RACER qualities in their actual employment, let alone their volunteer efforts.  

Burning Man is distinct because instead of hoarding these qualities, it works very hard to spread them around. Far from being hoarded, every volunteer is supposed to have complete access to them that’s what the experience of volunteering for Burning Man is, when it’s working properly (we do screw it up sometimes and when something is going wrong, these are the areas that volunteers generally find lacking in their experience). This dynamic is at the heart of our volunteer culture, and a key reason it inspires so many to do so much.

What does this imply for leadership?  This: That if the essence of the volunteer experience is the experience of RACER qualities, then a leader in Burning Man culture is someone who helps spread and distribute these qualities to everyone. Leadership does not come from making decisions, or controlling resources: leaders help everyone involved to experience Relevance, Agency, Competence, Engagement and Relatedness. And, of course, this means that leadership is not a zero-sum game: just because one person is doing it, doesn’t mean someone else can’t.  

This, then, is what differentiates Burning Man leadership from other kinds of leadership. A concentration of power in a single person or office or committee is actually a failure of leadership precisely because it tends to force others to ask for permission, hordes social capital, puts artificial limits on Agency and Competence, and so on. One can be given influence and be a leader, but not collect power.

One cultivates things like the 18 leadership qualities, or studies non-violent communication or emotional intelligence, in part to avoid doing that. Indeed, things like the 18 leadership qualities or specific communication techniques are only valuable (in a Burning Man context) to the extent that they help you develop RACER qualities in others to the extent that they do that, great, but if that’s not working, you can try other approaches to see what works best.

A person who practices all the good and useful generic traits of leadership, but doesn’t spread RACER qualities around to everyone, is not a leader in a Burning Man context, and is not looked to for leadership in a way that matters in Burning Man. Such people may have power, but they lack the moral authority necessary for leadership. Leaders use whatever power and influence they have to help others cultivate and act on these qualities.  A leader is helpful, not in the sense of assisting people to achieve a goal, but in the sense of helping them have a particular kind of experience one that is meaningful to them, and their goals.


Top photo: “Truth is Beauty” by Marco Cochrane (Photo by El Miguel)

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat Magister

A member of Burning Man Project's Philosophical Center, Caveat served as the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca from 2008 - 2013, and the lead writer/researcher for Burning Man's education program from 2016 - 2018. Caveat is the author of the The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities. 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

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