Finding the Burning Man Within

Behind the dynamic plans that shape our communities are dynamic people.
October 17, 2017
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Dynamically Planned

Duleesha Kulasooriya is head of strategy at Deloitte LLP Center for the Edge. At the 2017 Philadelphia Leadership Exchange, he asked the audience of executives from the nonprofit, government, business and philanthropic sectors if they had heard of Burning Man, an annual gathering of people dedicated to community, art, self-expression and self-reliance. Almost every hand went up. He then asked who has gone. A lone hand in the middle of the room remained up.

So many of us dedicate our professional and often personal lives to make our communities a better place. We join committees, develop plans, find ways to fund projects, debate new legislation and organize cleanups. We donate, volunteer, work extra hours, run for office and attend events. What we often forget to do is take time to recharge, seek inspiration outside of our communities and ensure our own supports are in place.

The Barr Foundation -- the largest private foundation in Massachusetts -- has a unique fellowship that recognizes the need for our leaders to recharge. Since 2005, the Barr Fellowship has invited a small group of nonprofit and public sector officials to partake in a two-year program that has retreats, funds for projects and a three-month sabbatical. Yes, a sabbatical. Each fellow is required to “disengage completely from their organizations.”

Though I doubt that Barr Fellows are going to opt to go to Burning Man during their sabbatical, I can imagine the projects, ideas and vision they develop and pursue are just as exciting. Freed from the hectic day-to-day operations (aka “real life”) and surrounded by a group of exemplary leaders with similar goals are ingredients for creativity and new energy.

Governing defines a dynamically planned city as one that is “rooted in aspiration and accountability” where plans are strategic and inclusive and reflect the “industriousness” of employees and residents. That describes Burning Man’s ethos where everything that is created, brought in and exchanged is from the participants. Though there are some guidelines and dedicated volunteers, Fast Company writes that “the most powerful part of the cultural transmission happens from person to person” at Burning Man.

At the end of Duleesha’s talk, someone asked him the story about his hair – while dressed sharply in a dark, fitted suit, he also sported a mohawk. He said he styles his hair that way for Burning Man each year, and then usually shaves the mohawk off completely before heading back to his job. Recently he decided to keep the mohawk and was surprised by the positive response, including one of his employees who said it encouraged her to be herself rather than pretending to fit in a certain way. The lesson? Person-to-person cultural transmission is powerful, whether in the desert or in our cities.

Maybe we all won’t get to Burning Man, but we can channel the burning man (or woman) from within. We can find that space to renew ourselves, to be ourselves and to bring that self forward into our work. Behind the dynamic plans that shape our communities are dynamic people.