Four Vital Behaviors for School Leadership

By Dave Levin, KIPP Co-Founder

In 2000, Susan Schaeffler, Dan Caesar, and Caleb Dolan became the first three Fisher Fellows in KIPP’s history. They went on to open transformational KIPP schools in Washington, DC, Houston, TX, and Gaston, NC. Susan, Dan, and Caleb are still leading the way for KIPPsters across the country.

In the eleven years since, 120 remarkable educators joined Dan, Susan, and Caleb in opening their own KIPP schools, serving 39,000 kids in 125 KIPP schools in 20 states and Washington, DC.

As KIPP has grown over the past twelve years, one of essential questions we wrestle with is, “Are there are set of vital behaviors that characterize great school leaders as well as make the job of leading a transformative school sustainable over the long-haul?” Last year, we convened a group of 30 remarkable leaders from across KIPP and partnered with David Maxfield from Vital Smarts, an innovator in training and organizational performance, to research this very question.

After an exhaustive research project that included collecting data and 150 stories from current as well as former school leaders, this team identified what we are calling Principal Vital Behaviors. These vital behaviors build upon the KIPP Leadership Competency Model which, since 2009, has served as the foundation of all of KIPP’s leadership development programs.

Our four Principal Vital Behaviors are:

1)  Teach more people to do the work that needs to be done…and insist that they do it.

2)  Plan and Execute (like a lesson)

3)  Use a lifeline. Be a lifeline.

4)  Build in time for physical recovery and mental and emotional renewal.

The team went on to flesh out each of these four behaviors.

1)  Teach more people to do the work that needs to be done…and insist that they do it.

The job is more than one person can do, and more than one person should be able to do every job.

– Build and empower a leadership team to make decisions and implement them. (Note: your leadership team can include teachers, etc…)

– Delegate beyond formal roles, titles, and your leadership team.

– Give real responsibilities to emerging leaders.

– Hold people accountable for agreed-upon outcomes.

– Create a school-wide culture that embraces mistakes as building capacity.


2)  Plan and Execute (like a lesson)

The job is full of predictable cycles and unpredictable events.

– Establish and align short-term and long-term goals for all team members and the school as a whole.

– Think in 2’s with leadership team—clearly identify the 2 most important priorities that must be accomplished in the next 2 years, 2 months, 2 weeks, 2 days, 2 hours, and 2 minutes to realize long-term goals.

– Prioritize strategic and tactical tasks (know how and when to focus on longer-term strategic questions or shorter-term tactical needs and vice-versa).

– Re-focus team after firefighting.


3)  Use a lifeline. Be a lifeline.

The job is sometimes isolating and overwhelming.

– Use lifelines (peers you can reach out to) that honor, encourage, and push you. (At least one lifeline should be outside the KIPP region in which you work.)

– Offer yourself as a lifeline, and stay proactive.

– Establish a clearly identified lifeline for all legal issues.

– Engage in cohort experiences (KIPP offers a variety of experiences that bring together our school leaders and teachers in various cohorts).


4)  Build in time for physical recovery and mental and emotional renewal.

The job is hard and demanding.

– Build in time for recovery and renewal thereby strengthening you and your school.

– Create a culture that integrates deliberate and ongoing recovery and renewal for the entire school community.

– Learn to master your stories (Your stories are the way in which you explain to yourself the events that happen in your life. Mastering your stories allows you to more intentionally choose your response to and emotions around any particular event).

– Sleep more.

Our goal remains the same as it always has – how do we get better, each year and every decade, at helping our kids develop the character and academic skills for college, career, and life?

Intrigued? Inspired? Join us – open a KIPP schoolteach in a KIPP school.   🙂 🙂

One love,


Interested in founding and leading a new KIPP school? Click here to learn more about the Fisher and Miles Family Fellowship. Apply by November 4th to meet the priority deadline.