Letting go to go farther: Lessons from Burning Man CEO Marian Goodell

Oona Eager
Article by: Oona Eager
Letting go to go farther: Lessons from Burning Man CEO Marian Goodell

Last week, Marian Goodell joined THNK’s current cohort - Class 12 - for a Forum dialogue on the theme of community and cohesive decentralization. Many readers won’t have heard of Marian; she’s not a celebrity per se and you won’t find much about her online. Yet she is arguably one of the most successful community cultivators of the last three decades. She is the CEO behind the ever-growing cultural phenomena that is Burning Man—a cohesive global community that organizes around ten principles.


What began 30 years ago as a few friends gathered together on a beach in California now attracts over 75,000 community members to the Black Rock desert each August. But for those who are working with communities worldwide, what is most remarkable about Burning Man is not the scope of its flagship event, but its Regional Network— a full annual calendar of decentralized, volunteer, and community-driven gatherings worldwide. Examples include ‘AfrikaBurn’ and Israel’s ‘Midburn’, annually convening 11,000 and 8,000 members, respectively.


At THNK we often refer to ‘leading from behind’ - an essential 21st century mindset for those building resilient organizations. But what does this really mean in practice? As a starting point, letting go. In her leadership role, Marian learned early on that stepping back from top-down control was a powerful approach to scaling Burning Man; she knew its logo and ‘brand’ were not actually its most powerful assets, but that its potential lay in community and everything the members wanted to bring to life.


“Truly creative endeavors are actually very productive,” says Marian, who believes that Burning Man gatherings allows people to connect more authentically. “Human interaction mediated by the Burning Man principles is what draws people together. The brand is the experience,” she says.

Dadara Likes for Real at Burning Man

Artist and THNK Forum Guest Dadara’s 2013 Burning Man installation Like 4 Real

Once the Burning Man principles were captured on paper in 2004 by Founder Larry Harvey, collaboration accelerated and an empowered Regional Network began to scale. The desire of the Burner community to take ownership in building itself had become very clear and this ethos has driven expansion ever since, with the ten principles living at the heart of every global experience.

“Our role [at Burning Man headquarters] is to provide guidelines, support, and stimulate interest,” says Marian. The principles provide both the foundation for the culture as well as the mores and boundaries for behaviour amongst community members.

Scaling a decentralized community is a dynamic and fluid process and as a pioneer of this approach, Burning Man has committed to a learning mindset year over year, in collaboration with their community members. Comparatively, at only five years old, THNK’s community is in its infancy, hitting an inflection point in our trajectory that echoes the same challenges and opportunities faced in Burning Man’s youth; in 2018 we’ve committed to capturing THNK’s values and principles on paper and this exercise will pave the way for our own community-driven approaches.

What we glean from our friends at Burning Man and other like-minded groups is that community-building is all at once deeply rewarding and provocative work … without a prescriptive roadmap. As a living, breathing entity, the evolution of a community requires true dialogue amongst stakeholders: an agreement to manifest the courage and space needed to be with each other when the challenges become ambiguous and messy. And the trust that the journey together will, most importantly, reveal our distinct humanness.

Community scaling and decentralized models are part of the curriculum in the THNK Executive Leadership Program. Visit the program page to learn more.