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Why ETHOS Matters - A Lesson From Burning Man

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Why are people, Millennials to Baby Boomers, opulent and pinched, artistic and techie, academic and corporate, coming from all walks of the world to experience Burning Man? Why would so many people spend an enormous amount of effort, resources, time and energy to create and build something that last for only a week and with no explicit branding and monetary gain? What was the compelling force and motivation behind this movement and why was it spreading like wildfire in 57 cities across the U.S. and over 50 international cities throughout South America, Europe, Asia and Africa? And most importantly, why is it relevant to anyone of us today?

Burning Man took on a life of its own and the idea not only survived, but morphed and expanded on itself. It lives, inspires and works, because Larry Harvey, its main co-founder, had the brilliance to understand that it needed ethos that was deliberate but open, structured yet expandable, and regulated yet flexible.

“We use the word ethos and ethos means a way of life. This is all about identity. It’s hard to belong. And that’s really, in creating a city here, talking about a powerful sense of place; a cosmic sense of place” - Larry Harvey, Founder, 2013 Documentary “Spark – A Burning Man Story”

Several years back, the Leave-no-trace phenomenon of Burning Man was taking on exponential momentum – as the event sold out in 2011 for the first time in its 25 years of existence.

The first “burn” took place in 1986 on Baker Beach, when Larry Harvey came up with the idea to burn a wooden effigy to overcome a difficult breakup. The event has familiar origins in a pagan ritual where a scapegoat is erected and destroyed to cast off negative vibes and free the mind, body and soul. Gathered at Baker Beach for the first burn, a small group of San Francisco Bohemians unknowingly at that time, began a movement that has transcended numerous demographic and cultural boundaries. When authorities banned bonfire burnings on the beach, Burning Man took a pivotal turn and made its way to the Nevada Desert.

The desert stripped away many constraints, physical and mental, giving rise to new spatial freedoms for exploration. In the 90’s, Burning Man became heavily influenced by the rave culture of its decade. Anything goes in this vast isolationism of the desert - as long as it was “cool”. From radical expressionism, pulsating sound systems churning throughout the night, to liquid flame blowers and gun wielding mavericks from the wild wild west. Burning Man became the temporary autonomous zone – better known as TAZ in the world of Rave era thinking. Intellectuals believed that the freedom to exist and to create would be fueled by the existence of a place that in and of itself, was ephemeral by nature.

Overtime, the rave party camps were moved away from the central area of Burning Man and it became wildly hazardous for incapacitated drivers and celebrants to cross-over between the two areas in complete darkness. In 1996, some people were killed when a drunk driver crashed into their tent. It marked another significant turning point; Burning Man needed rules and structure to ensure the safety of the participants and protect the liability of the organizers that were putting it together. The founding members splintered over the new direction for Burning Man and Larry Harvey brilliantly put in place, a framework where the idea and ethos of Burning Man thrived, while ensuring its corporate and legal viability was sustainable.

Essentially, its differentiating ethos is what gives Burning Man its creative extremities, chaotic anarchy, civic sustainability and inspirational enlightenment.

Burning Man is built on a gifting economy, where there is no exchange of money for products or services. Many legacy “burners” come back year after year, devoting daunting amounts of time, effort and resources to build or share something with the community of Burning Man, with no monetary payment in return. Its free-spirited, radical self-expressionism exists at Burning Man in every form, from 70 foot interactive art structures, to multi-million dollar electronic music shows, to elaborately built art cars and theme camps, to every decorative flair and gesture on every bicycle and body part.

This 6+ mile radius event is the largest “leave no trace” event in the world – meaning everything you bring in, must be brought out. “Leave no trace” bestows on us a greater responsibility than ourselves and it demands a conscientious awareness of our existence and interconnected place in the greater ecosystem.

Burning Man Photo credit:

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A business structure with paid employees can still have ethos that drives inspiration, co-creation, collaboration and innovation; the key is being deliberate and conscious about it – and then institutionalizing it and reinforcing it until it breathes and lives between interactions.

If leadership could understand how to build, nurture and harness this type of energy, this type of ethos, then their organizations and networks could better collaborate, innovate and thrive. Can business entities have this type of ethos and be competitive and successful? Professor Mele, who has published extensively on the subject calls it a “humanistic business ethos” – where businesses are recognized as a “community of persons” – generating loyalty and collaboration motivated by more than just contracts and self-interest.

This is what Pulitzer Prize winning historian and visionary James Burns heralded as transformational leadership – leadership that has the ability to harness collaboration and fellowship. The late Burns, who passed away in July of 2014, spent an entire lifetime dedicated to pioneering the study and development of leadership. Transformational leaders lead by example and the relationship between leader and follower is characterized by mutual stimulation – ultimately elevating the level of motivation and morality in both.

In practice, it starts with the conscious effort to create, nurture and build an ethos in your organization.

Former CEO and founder of iShares – Lee Kranefuss was the pioneer of Exchange Traded Funds. He used transformational leadership to create an inclusive and deliberate culture; one that he envisioned his children would someday be proud of. Kranefuss was deliberate about bringing every level of the organization together to co-create this ethos. His leadership team carved out time and resources to have an off-site retreat dedicated to the deliberate co-creation of ethos. The consequence was a higher level of organizational and interpersonal innovation, leading to one of the most innovative array of investment products in the past two decades.

That’s what I remember from my days at Barclays Global Investors – the powerful ethos that was taught from day one: "Play with Passion", "Speak the Truth", "Color Outside the Lines", "Team Before Self", "Client Focus", and "Take Ownership". But more importantly, leadership reiterated it and reinforced it. It was something we actively participated in and tried to continually uphold. At its peak, Barclays Global Investors was sold as a $13.5 billion “gem” during the height of the financial crises.

Businesses with a very strong sense of culture tend to attract talent with a shared sense of culture. If you are not deliberate about it, then a culture will grow organically, good or bad, stunting or catapulting your organization. Great examples of leaders with a strong cultural compass are those that are unrelenting in their belief of a vision or a greater destiny. They range from Eastman Kodak to Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa. They left impactful footprints over the hearts of people, communities and nations. For an organization, sustaining that ethos becomes an increasing challenge as it grows and sprouts new locations domestically and abroad. In 2004, when Burning Man had reached 35,664 participants, Larry Harvey created 10 principles for Burning Man and shared it with the world. It clarified and sealed the ethos for new participants and reinforced them for legacy participants.

Written or not, conscious or not, culture exists in every type of organization or network – and it lives, energized or stagnant, by the continual efforts and reinforcements that nurture it.

Photo credit: Artist working on his creation, “Parasolvent” by Liz Puccianti – August 2014.

When you step onto the “Playa” or beach at Burning Man, what strikes you most vividly is the creative energy. Formerly, across this expansive desert, or what was formerly nothingness - now stands in its place, a thriving community of creative energy and determinism that stretches your imagination to new levels of comprehension. Like any community, network, organization, or corporation, a culture develops and spreads, deliberate or not, until it exists and becomes pervasive.

This embodies the most creative principle Larry Harvey put down in writing – “Radical Self-expression”. It flourishes within Burning Man from the very early days when members of the Cacophony Society, known for their elaborate costumes fused their energy with other co-founders. Officially from the Burning Man website, “Radical Self-Expression” is offered as a gift to others and no one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. The creative passion that goes into every artistic expression at Burning Man can be shocking and transcending – leaving the creator and the observer exposed, willing or not.

During my time at Barclays Global Investors, we laid out and reinforced the ethos of ‘color outside the lines’ and ‘speak the truth’. This ethos encouraged colleagues to think outside the box and share opinions and ideas they believed could be politically risky or highly dissenting. Colleagues mustered the courage to act and speak because middle and upper management also shared their own personal experiences where this was scary but necessary. In practice, colleagues who take on refreshing new approaches should be encouraged and rewarded for their initiative and efforts. It works only if there is continual belief, effort and reinforcement to ensure it lives and breathes at every level of the organization. This not only makes for a better working culture, but it rewarded itself in the market share that its leading products captured at that time. Innovation can never thrive when fear and intimidation are used to silence dissenting opinions.

Inclusion teaches collaboration – but it has to be intentional and reinforced by leadership.

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"Radical Inclusion” is another powerful tenant of Burning Man. I’ve seen children as young as 5 months old riding around in bicycle seats on the playa experiencing and interacting with art. There’s even a dedicated camp for children at Burning Man called Kidsville.

The first burn on Baker Beach included children and that inclusionary spirit still exists today. To sustain “radical inclusion” – the principle was institutionalized and reinforced.

This starts in our societal fabric. Look to the examples set out by Spanish cities such as San Sebastian, Madrid, or Barcelona. Children are deeply infused into the social framework of family and public life – where – they are the showcase of the family unit that is praised and heralded in a culture that brings the family outdoors in every shape, size and form.

From the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich made it clear what he believes was the discrepancy in our corporate culture… “I am here to say tonight it’s time to step up and do more. It’s not good enough to say we value diversity and then have our workplaces and our industry not reflect the full availability and talent pool of women and under-represented minorities. Tonight, I’m announcing Intel’s intention to lead by example and invite the entire technology industry to join us.” (“The most important thing unveiled at the CES has nothing to do with gadgets.”

Leadership that reinforces this by ensuring that equal opportunities are available to all genders, ethnicities, identities and age groups, will attract and produce more collaborative and innovative mindsets. Be deliberate about the quality of the manager you hire – innate social intuitiveness and compassion cannot be taught. An organization that doesn’t believe in the work to life balance will not be able to retain the most talented minds for the long-run; as competition will drive the most talented people to better opportunities elsewhere.

If you reward or ignore even one defector that erodes the ethos of your organization, you begin to undermine the deliberate ethos you intended to create and a counter-cultural movement starts to overtake its place. The short-term gains may seem to outweigh the long-run consequences, but don’t be mistaken, you are undermining the very fabric of co-creation, collaboration and innovation in your organization.

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“Leave no trace” is the most differentiating ethos that separates and distinguishes Burning Man from any other event. Imagine 70,000 participants leaving a week-long event where no trash or environmental footprint has been left behind. The desert floor is combed through with rakes for every last bead and remnant. No burn marks are left on the desert floor by any bonfires. Burning Man also bans feather-adorned attire or accessories for that reason alone. People bring in whatever they need to build, share and survive, and they take everything with them when they depart; even the ashes from their cigarettes and any grey matter water they amass. Theme camps that come back year after year respect, enforce and honor this, because their future participation depends on the color grade they receive from the aftermath inspection of their allotted space.

Smaller and larger events worldwide have left staggering amounts of trash and destruction to their host site.

In 2014, between 10 to 15,000 attendees at San Francisco’s Hippie Hill event left 10,000 pounds of garbage strewn all over the eastern part of Golden Gate Park for city workers to pick up on the tax payers’ tab. (“Golden Gate Pot Party A Major Mess” – SF Chronicle. April 16, 2014. Victoria Colliver.

At the Isle of Wight Music Festival in the UK, 10,000 tents were left behind in 2011. (

The average Mt Everest Climber leaves 18lbs of trash behind, or roughly 100,000 lbs of trash since the first historic climb in 1953. (

At BGI’s iShares, ‘team before self’ resonated a similar ethos. Strive for more than just your personal gain and think of how the greater organization or society is served. This translates to putting your products and services before yourself, and essentially, infusing the voice of your customer and every brand touchpoint into your brand promise. The brand promise is how you ensure your organization delivers and executes on your brand vision.

Just like in any organization, there will be individuals who want to reap the benefits without contributing to the build, the effort, or the spirit of the endeavor. Legacy burners report the drop-in frat parties that happen in the closing weekend of the burn, when raging party-goers turn up for the burn just to get plastered and leave indiscriminate amounts of trash for their theme camp neighbors to clean up. Some of these elements are harder to enforce than others, but consequences for non-compliance have to be severe and enforceable.

Inspire full participation, celebrate achievements and provide closure for changing elements

Burning Man also thrives on a “radically participatory ethic” and the “work hard and play hard” principles. And in doing so, our deeply personal participation connects us spiritually and physically. Elaborate theme camps like the French Quarter, allows participation that flows into a larger creation that is openly shared to others. Volunteers build a New Orleans Style French Quarter hotel, a bar, bakery, spa and bathhouse. The bakery serves beignets and the farmer’s market distributes fruit smoothies, fruits and vegetables to the early risers. The Fallen Angel Bathhouse was equipped with 5 hot showers and a spa, all built within an expedited one-week timeframe. The creation of theme camps and the interactive art embodied also the “communal effort” principle of Burning Man - where the community values creative cooperation and collaboration. Essentially, Burning Man encourages and inspires us to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support those interactions.

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The iconic temple at Burning Man is the quintessential embodiment of spiritual cleansing and closure. The artist David Best was inspired to create it in tribute to a friend that died in a motorcycle accident at Burning Man many years earlier. Thus, it is a returning spiritual centerpiece of Burning Man. The temple almost didn’t get built in 2014, but David Best’s wife, Maggie, urged him to return and take over its creation and completion; in which he did with resounding success. David Best, along with a team of 4 architects, 3 structural engineers and a crew of 100 completed the temple just in time. On Kickstarter, the temple received more than $51,000 of pledges from 625 supporters, and is built on donated wood - 55% from recycled materials. The dome itself was 50 feet across and weighed between 20 to 30,000 pounds. One of the crew members took a week to determine what to do with the gothic style of wood pieces that were donated. David Best believes what makes the temple special is all the imperfections that everyone brings into it….”it doesn’t belong to anybody, it belongs to our entire community.” -, Burning Man 2014 : David Best talks Temple.

The ceremonial temple burn is always on the last official day of Burning Man.

That’s also something many employees remember from their days at Barclays Global Investors. There was a ritual to begin or close every major project, merger, layoff, or innovation. The ritual in and of itself reinforced the ethos that permeated the organization. Speak with honesty and empathy during difficult and changing times, and allow proper tributes so that closure can heal rather than divide.

Strive for something uniquely differentiated in your vision and execute with the long-term benefits in mind

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The most striking ethos of Burning Man is the Gifting Principle – because Burning Man is devoted to acts of unconditional giving. With the exception of ice, there is no buying or selling of any services or products at Burning Man. At the French Quarter theme camp, we gifted drinks from our bar, fresh veggies from our farmer’s market, beignets from our bakery and wine pourings from our wine tasting tents. In the evenings, our shared meals among a group of strangers from all corners of the world included slow cooked ribs, duck magre and bouef borgognone. The wine accompaniment was equally impressive.

Burning Man also strives to be “unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising”. As a consequence, its power and compelling magnetism lies in its counter-cultural brand of being non-branded. In an era in which we are inundated with brands, something that can rise above the masses remains truly compelling. Clearly it’s differentiated. We are much more than what we do everyday of our lives for our work, for our families and for our friends – and Burning Man was the creative outlet for all energies suppressed and expressed; it has become a place that we can exist without boundaries, for one week.

The physical artwork may have a contained lifespan on the playa, yet the inspiration and spiritualism it brings forth has long-term, intentional consequences. This represents another essential ethos of Burning Man – immediacy.

Whatever is physically created for Burning Man is ephemeral – and unlike in other parts of our lives, we have to live and experience the now, or it will be gone. A strong testament to the way we should live life, not putting off our dreams, but seizing it by its reigns and visualizing it and making it become real. In that one week, you have the chance to see and feel the art, but you also know, it will be as ephemeral as everything in life. Extract what you can, let go of what you can, reframe yourself in the way you can. And even if you don’t take anything with you, allow yourself to perceive things differently for just that one week.

The art inspirations, on the playa or in the deep playa, are there to challenge, invoke, inspire and interact. Situated in open desert spaces, enduring the harshness of up to 90 mph winds and white-outs, you began to see how even artists are stretched in their design capacity to build something that can endure. The dichotomy is that the art has to be completely durable yet ephemeral. Visitors climbed on anything and everything that do not explicitly say ‘do not climb’. Essentially the amount of collaboration and creative expressionism drives innovation and inspiration, creating a potent dynamic between creator, builder and consumer. This can be harnessed outside of Burning Man – the ethos is at the crux.

The more immediate and intentional we are about our own character, about the community we nurture or the calling we follow, the more beauty there will be to fill up the emptiness.

“What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.” ~ Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez

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