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An oasis in the desert: Leadership lessons from Burning Man

An oasis in the desert: Leadership lessons from Burning Man

Burning ManThink the annual arts fest in the Nevada desert is nothing more than a week-long bacchanal? Think again – Fast Company's E.B. Boyd explains what we can learn from its execution.

It’s easy to dismiss Burning Man as nothing more than a bizarre hippie love-fest that takes place deep in the Nevada desert every year the week before Labor Day. But doing so misses the fact that it’s an amazingly successful enterprise – and, as such, has a thing or two to teach about how to inspire creative people and create a great product.

Since it first began 25 years ago, Burning Man has grown larger every year (if you ignore the slight dip in recession-scarred 2009). It’s grown so much that this year, for the first time ever, the organization had to cut off ticket sales early, for fear of finally hitting the 50,000-person limit authorized by its federal land-use permit. And those tickets aren’t cheap either--they now cost an average of $300 a pop.

Granted, Burning Man's overall intention is not to create a "product," per se. (Not one for trite labels, it calls itself an "experiment in community.") But its growth numbers – in terms of customers and revenue--are ones any business could envy. So how does Burning Man do it?

It starts with culture

One of the first things to understand is that Burning Man isn’t actually just a festival. In many ways--in keeping with its mission – it’s actually more of a town. In fact, it's the 11th largest in Nevada during the one week of its existence. The horseshoe that makes up "Black Rock City" (named for Black Rock Desert) gets delineated into "blocks" and "neighborhoods" where attendees (dubbed "participants") set up their camps--often elaborate compounds complete with sitting areas and play areas in addition to tents, yurts, and RVs. The "town" even has its own post office (send a letter and it will reach its destination, complete with a "Black Rock City" cancellation mark), as well as an airport.

As a result, many of the people who choose to go to Burning Man do so not just for the revelries and the festivities but simply because it’s a place they like to visit, like the Eastern seaboard, the Gulf Coast, Las Vegas, or the Poconos.

And they like to visit it because of the overall atmosphere. It’s one of the friendliest towns you will ever come across. Most camps have an open-door policy. You’re welcome to stop in at any abode. Most people are also inordinately helpful. Other Burners will happily help you set up your camp or install your art piece. And it’s amazingly safe for a town of 50,000, many of whom are partying for seven days straight. If you’re a woman, you can walk home at 3 in the morning with little fear of harassment. Brawls are basically unheard of.

So how does Burning Man produce this culture? It’s a mix of top-down instruction and horizontal transmission.

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