Doug Cline: The Building Blocks of a Winning Team

By Doug Cline

As America’s fire service witnesses the retirements of the baby boomers, it is critical that leadership continue to build solid winning teams.  It is important that we drill into the heart of what it takes to create a winning team in an evolving fire service.  The foundation of the future modern fire service will be based on the creation and communication of a vision and setting goals that focus on the many new talents of the younger members of this great profession and utilizing their diverse knowledge, skills, and abilities.

The purpose of this program at FDIC 2014 and this article is to share a very adaptable model for achieving a high-performance culture, which is critical for a winning team. You may ask, How do we build this high-performance culture and the winning team?  What is a high-performance culture?  A high-performance culture is a mindset with accompanying and reinforced habits, routines, practices, principles, and values.  Building this culture involves four critical components:

1.      A collaborative environment

2.      Accountability at all levels

3.      Focus

4.      Robust processes

Collaborative Environment

Collaborative environments are not easily created.  It takes time to create the team or organizational environment that requires collaboration in every application.  This would mean that team members embrace and truly believe they are in an atmosphere where their input and points of view will be welcomed and considered valuable. This environment creates in each team member an obligation to participate fully and candidly on a consistent level.   

A collaborative environment facilitates and is facilitated by other key components of a high–performance culture of a winning team.  The organization must focus on the systematic development of collaboration through developing a common vision for the future.  It is common when initiating this process to find that even dysfunctional groups discover how much they have in common when they truly communicate.

It is not easy to develop such an environment, but it can be more easily accomplished when the members overcome the challenges to collaborating, which include a lack of skills in collaborating and a mono-vision on how a task should be accomplished. The focus should be on finding several different ways to accomplish a common vision.

Culture of Accountability

I am sure you have heard individuals in organizations talk about the lack of accountability and the need for it. Most people will speak about it, but it is usually a major shock to the organizational culture when true accountability shows up. 

A culture of accountability is characterized by three consistent beliefs and practices:

1.      The expectations of personal performance and behavior are clear and concise.

2.      Exceptional performance is recognized, reinforced, and appropriately rewarded.

3.      Performance problems, including failure to meet one’s commitments, are addressed quickly and fairly based on the rules.

This all sounds great until you are on the receiving or delivery end, as most people do not like confrontation.  In a high-performance winning team, accountability is the point at which the failure will begin as individuals do not live up to the expectations and leaders or peers do not want to hold them accountable because of the confrontation involved in the situation. On a high-performance team, everyone is accountable and responsible for holding to true accountability.


We all want to accomplish so much as organizations and individuals that we often lose focus of the prize while in the process of getting to it. Focus is the ability to limit goals to those few that allow you to concentrate your limited resources to establish clear priorities and achieve significant accomplishments. 

If there are too many priorities, then there are no real priorities.  This is a common mistake organizations make as they attempt far more than they can accomplish, which results in nothing being accomplished at a high level and in confusion and distress for the team members. As management author John Maxwell notes in The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader: “If you chase two rabbits, both will escape.”1  Think about that. Focusing on more than one goal at a time will frequently result in failure. The obstacle to achieving focus is the human tendency to want to do or accomplish too many things.  The ability to focus on one great goal is better than focusing on two or more mediocre goals. 

Robust Processes

Robust processes are extraordinarily effective and efficient ways of getting things done.  In the emergency services world, we emphasize that effectively delivering services to our internal and external customers is of the highest critical importance.  These robust processes are the heart of execution, but they can only be achieved with the support of the other three previous components.  Robust processes ensure two things critical to success: explicit focus on the needs of internal and external customers and the ability to execute what it takes to get the goals accomplished. Being able to execute these four critical functions of a high-performance team will create an organization of excellence. 


1 Maxwell, John C. and Rolf Zettersten (Editor). (1999) The21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader: Becoming the Person Others Will Want to Follow. Nelson Books.


Douglas Cline, is a 34-year veteran and student of the Fire Service serving as Assistant Chief of Operations with Horry County Fire Recue.

Chief Cline is the President International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI) and served as a member of the 2014 FDIC Advisory Board.

Cline was honored in 2000 as the International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI), George D. Post International Instructor of the Year. He holds a Bachelors Degree in Social Services with a Minor in Education from Concord University.