The succes of BURNING MAN: 10 principles and a new generation

Interview with James Hanusa: Head of Innovation at Burning Man festival

Why is Burning Man Festival so succesfull? “Burning Man is a way of life. You see that many people are living it in their daily lives.” – Read more about the value of 10 principles and a new generation in an organization

By Ralph Blom – Editing Annelies Hoogcarspel & Irma Walraven


Knowing this festival as one of the most extreme and well-known in the world, my thoughts start running wild as soon as I see his function title. One LinkedIn message later, he is talking to me about the Burning Man organization, what the festival means to its participants, and how it is effected by a new generation of staff.

It’s a sunny day when I meet James Hanusa at Hotel New York in Rotterdam. Burning Man is a festival in the middle of nowhere in Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada, USA since 1990. Nowadays, over 60.000 people get together for a period of seven days as a self-organized community. It operates like a city for a week, the participants being the citizens. They have to live together with all the challenges of the dessert, such as windstorms, (lack of) water and sleeping facilities. Miranda Huiden, one of my co-workers at De Baak, went over last year. How did she come back? Shocked, overwhelmed and her eyes shining bright with excitement.

James Hanusa is in The Netherlands to speak about Burning Man, the illusive dessert and the power of art at the ENTER festival in Rotterdam. We settle into an interesting conversation.

What is it like to work for the Burning Man organization?
A big smile on his face, James starts talking. "The trust and belief in the human potential of staff is huge. The organization strongly believes that it takes potentials at least three years to develop before they are completely in the right place." James himself was thrown into the deep in a new role, creating new services and bridging local and government partnerships. The gap with the previous companies where he worked is huge. He used to work for a software company where he didn’t feel he fit in. “I couldn’t be my whole self, I just did not get the opportunity to be creative.”
What does the Burning Man organization do that helps you do so well?
“Interesting question. I am thinking and learning while you are asking me this. I think it has to do with the ten principles of Burning Man. They are the shared values and we try as much as we can to live them. Sometimes it is difficult, because they are also used as ‘show stopping’ argument in meetings. They are the guidelines for making decisions. Because the principles are so universal, we can really live them. In addition, there is a culture of person to person communication. It is important for us to meet with each other, although discussions do tend to get philosophic.”

The ten Burning Man principles

  1. Radical inclusion—"Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community."
  2. Gifting—"Burning Man is devoted to acts of gift giving. The value of a gift is unconditional. Gifting does not contemplate a return or an exchange for something of equal value."
  3. Deco modification—"In order to preserve the spirit of gifting, our community seeks to create social environments that are unmediated by commercial sponsorships, transactions, or advertising. We stand ready to protect our culture from such exploitation. We resist the substitution of consumption for participatory experience."
  4. Radical self-reliance—"Burning Man encourages the individual to discover, exercise and rely on his or her inner resources."
  5. Radical self-expression—"Radical self-expression arises from the unique gifts of the individual. No one other than the individual or a collaborating group can determine its content. It is offered as a gift to others. In this spirit, the giver should respect the rights and liberties of the recipient."
  6. Communal effort—"Our community values creative cooperation and collaboration. We strive to produce, promote and protect social networks, public spaces, works of art, and methods of communication that support such interaction."
  7. Civic responsibility—"We value civil society. Community members who organize events should assume responsibility for public welfare and endeavor to communicate civic responsibilities to participants. They must also assume responsibility for conducting events in accordance with local, state and federal laws."
  8. Leaving No Trace— "Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them."
  9. Participation—"Our community is committed to a radically participatory ethic. We believe that transformative change, whether in the individual or in society, can occur only through the medium of deeply personal participation. We achieve being through doing. Everyone is invited to work. Everyone is invited to play. We make the world real through actions that open the heart."
  10. Immediacy "Immediate experience is, in many ways, the most important touchstone of value in our culture. We seek to overcome barriers that stand between us and a recognition of our inner selves, the reality of those around us, participation in society, and contact with a natural world exceeding human powers. No idea can substitute for this experience."

“You see that many Burning Man people are living these principles in their daily lives.”

At the same time, it is not always easy for the Burning Man organization to stay true to the principles, especially the one about commercialization, while on the other hand trying to grow and make it more intense. Due to the anti-commercialization principle for example, it is not allowed to buy or sell anything at the event, or show logos.
What would our participants learn if we would send them from our programs to Burning Man festival?
“It’s interesting to see that there are a lot of venture capitalists and people from Silicon Valley coming to the festival. They just take the week off, considering this to be their vacations. What you will hear from a lot of them is that it opens up their field of possibilities. They are faced with inner personal stuff. It really encourages people to look at their own behavior. Asking themselves and each other: Who are we? You see deep conversations and transformations.”

We talk some more about the things other organizations might learn from Burning Man. Because of the desert and the ten principles, there is an interesting dynamic wrestling with challenges and desires. The start date deadline is helping to deliver on time. While ready or not… it will happen. The purpose and vision of the event support a more easy collaboration between participants. And on top of all that: there is no escape – people have to work together because the desert is ruthless.
Step by step a new generation is entering organizations. Do you see big differences in how they act and work in the Burning Man organization and festival?
James laughs and starts talking about the new generation full of enthusiasm. It was important for the CEO to bring in new thinking. At the moment there is an experiment with a couple of young people, 60% of whom have never even been to the event. Attracting new people is not a big issue, because of the strong brand name. A man and a woman aged 27 are now the youngest of the fifty employees in the organization.
“It’s interesting to see them communicating so differently. Meaningfulness and purpose are very important to them. For them it is really important to bring more purpose than party to the event. Besides a new way of thinking, they really bring a fresh perspective into the organization, a strong network and new business models.”

While we speak, talent spotting as a topic pops up. Because of the strong brand name and the strong feeling of connection participants have with the Burning Man festival, Burning Man organization has a huge potential talent pool to draw from. They are currently working on ways to transform this potential into creativity and new value for the organization.
They also noticed that young people have a whole new way of entering the organization as employees. One of the new staff wanted to work for the organization so badly but there was no position available. He came up with a business plan that he wanted to realize for Burning Man, paying for his own salary by making a profit with it. It is a great example of new thinking, working and developing with young people. He is now working at Burning Man.
If you were to give one piece of advice to new generation talents, what would it be?
“Take time early on to explore the world, understand your values and what your passion and your gifts are.” James takes his sunglasses of, ending with a story about the influence of travelling on helping him on his way. His journey through Europe was one of his major learning experiences. A test helping him find his strengths also offered him great opportunities for reflection. If he had received these insights in high school, it would have helped him focus on his passion and strengths earlier on. Burning Man now gives him wings to continue to develop in an ongoing journey of learning, growing and finding his path in life.


Special thanks goes to ENTER – ENTER is an unprecedented type of event with a Lowlands feeling. It offers high quality content combined with a unique experience. Each session will have a lineup of (inter)national high profile speakers, giving an in-depth overview of one specific theme. The speakers will cover success stories of today, developments of tomorrow and will give an outlook of the future.

More and more organizations are convinced that learning is one of the most important tools for maintaining a leading position. De Baak can help these organizations with tailor-made programs; customized learning, and with individual programs in which you meet people from different companies. Such learning is not isolated, but is always linked to a higher goal: the strategic development of the organization.

Are you interested in the learning programs of de Baak in English on the topics Leadership, Entrepreneurship and Innovation for managers and professionals? Please visit our website or use the chat below.


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