4 Vital Behaviors for Successful Leaders

As KIPP has grown, we’ve learned that building a strong leadership team is essential to the success of a school. The job of leading a school is hard work, so we have grappled with the question: “Is there a set of behaviors that characterize successful leaders and help them not only create a great school, but sustain it and themselves over the long haul?”


By Freddy Gonzalez, Chief Learning Officer, KIPP Foundation

Leadership is hard work. You’re trying to fulfill a mission and vision, all the while managing a team, building and strengthening relationships, fighting fires, answering urgent questions, and often thinking about your job even when you’re not at your job.

For me, this isn’t just theoretical—it’s personal. I started my career as a teacher at KIPP Austin, became an assistant principal, and then served as school leader of KIPP Austin College Prep for seven years. During that time, I learned all about the challenges of being a leader. I found myself navigating a lot of demands and feeling a lot of pressure from parents, students, and teachers.

A year ago I’ve moved to a new role, leading KIPP’s efforts to train and support principals working just as hard as I did. As Chief Learning Officer, I’m tasked with helping principals succeed in their roles for longer. This isn’t just good for them professionally, but also helps their schools thrive. Data indicates that when a principal sticks around longer, so do teachers and students, which leads to higher student achievement.

I’m not satisfied with KIPP’s principal retention rates to date. I want us to keep even more leaders from year to year. So how do we get there? Hard work is part of it, but that’s not enough to sustain a career. An overworked leader is a leader at risk of leaving their position.

Principals also need to be resilient, and I firmly believe that resiliency can be taught and learned. Research shows that resilient principals exhibit certain behaviors. In 2013, KIPP partnered with VitalSmarts to figure out just what those behaviors were. We wanted to know what successful school leaders do that helps them not only create a great school, but sustain it and themselves over the long haul.

These are our Four Vital Behaviors for Success and Sustainability:

  • Teach and Insist. Teach others the work that needs to be done, and insist that they do it. This isn’t just about taking work off the leader’s plate. It’s also about providing other members of the team with opportunities to stretch and grow. It can even be a way to prepare new and aspiring leaders, so that your work can thrive and endure beyond you.
  • Prioritize and Execute. Many successful leaders think a lot like teachers. They understand the value of a great lesson plan. Think of planning the year like planning lessons: set short- and long-term goals, assign certain priorities to certain people, and then execute on your plan while monitoring everyone’s progress over the course of the year
  • Engage Your Lifelines. Some people say leadership is lonely; I believe it doesn’t have to be. Research shows that building and nurturing relationships—finding sounding boards, thought partners, and supporters—can actually increase career longevity. Calling up a friend or colleague isn’t a sign of weakness, but a smart and admirable choice. When challenges come up, you have people to talk to; when there are successes, you have people with whom you can celebrate.
  • Renew to Get Stronger. Kinnari Patel-Smyth, the executive director of KIPP Metro Atlanta Schools, says that the best career advice she ever got was to “put your oxygen mask on first before assisting others.” Sometimes being a great leader means taking care of yourself for a while. By building in opportunities for physical and mental recovery, you can ensure that you’re in good shape when you have to be there for others.

We’re explicit about living out these four Vital Behaviors at every level of KIPP. In fact, our co-founder Dave Levin’s recent out-of-office email message read, “One of KIPP’s Four Vital Behaviors is Renew to Get Stronger. I will be doing some reading, planning, and taking a vacation with my family. I won’t be returning many emails during this time.” It intentionally set an example that at KIPP, not only is it okay to take time away from work to recharge, but we think it is important!

I believe that a great leader’s career should be a marathon, not a sprint. For our principals, staying around long-term can increase not only their success, but their students’ and teachers’ success as well. With these four behaviors as our guide, we’re helping our leaders become more resilient and thrive for years to come.


Hear more about principal retention from KIPP Co-Founder Dave Levin in a recent post on Education Dive >