There are those among us who wish for achievement greater than command at sea. Perhaps you would like to be one of these persons? Though many flag officers would prefer for you to imagine that they had simply arrived at their stars without any sort of ugly calculation (as if they were delighted, but frankly surprised, to discover their name on the flag list, much like Taylor Swift winning a Grammy), the truth is that many consciously worked toward selection from their first day in the service. As for you, if you wish to join them, you too will have to plan ahead, and early.
In the surface community, the template for how to achieve this end was described, beginning in the 1980s, by a group of officers who would rise to dominate Navy leadership well into the new century. When the first of these admirals made his star, it was remarked that “he never worked a day in his life.” This was not intended to suggest that he didn’t work hard—he did. What was meant was that he had never had a “regular” job. From his first shore tour as a flag lieutenant, he went from one prestige job to the next, and by the time he was a commander, his accession to flag was widely considered to be a fait accompli.
Yes, he excelled at sea, but more important, he understood that while “sustained, superior performance at sea” is necessary, it is not sufficient if your intent lies beyond major command. Rather, he perceived that sufficiency could only be conferred by a complex web of impressions and relationships, accrued though the right performance, in the right shore tours, working for the right people, and perhaps even having the right spouse.
If you have aspirations to make flag you need to start right away. If you excel in your first sea tour, you may be presented with an opportunity. The easiest (but not only) example of a “right” first shore tour would be selection to the personal staff of a surface warfare flag. There you will discover—and it will be discovered—whether you possess the right stuff or not. If you do, your admiral has the power to start the ball rolling on your behalf. If not, it is unlikely that you will ever find your way onto one of the so-called “watch lists.”
The Navy does not like to discuss or even acknowledge these watch lists because their existence is, technically speaking, illegal; they are secret records. Circulated at the surface three-star level and above, they are used primarily to ensure that appropriate officers in the 0-4 to 0-6 range are identified for special handling in the detailing process.
This should not surprise you. Indeed, it would be naïve for you to imagine that the community would not want to concern itself with the active husbanding of those perceived to show the greatest promise. You need to be on one of these lists, even if you will never know whether you are or are not.
First, you must convince your flag that you are a highly competent professional. You must also be invariably positive and cheerful. You may never be angry, impatient, or flippant, which may be thought of as the metaphoric equivalents of self-inflicted head wounds.
Second, you must be fully supportive of Navy policies, whatever they may be. Cynical compliance will not be welcome. Actually, cynicism of any sort is unwelcome. You do not want to be identified as one of those poor souls who simply doesn’t “get it”: More than one promising officer “died” by perversely (if sensibly) opposing the Littoral Combat Ship.
Third, you must execute your job with unfailing enthusiasm, even in the face of what may be surprising expectations. It might be too much to say that you could not find an officer who made flag in the 1990s who didn’t walk some former admiral’s dog, but the point should be taken. Smile and neck it on down (though it would be better were you to just smile naturally rather than fake one).
Still, even consistently great performance in prestige jobs doesn’t make you a lock for flag. There are simply too many variables involved, and only a fool believes that rank luck isn’t one of them. However, following these rules should get you into the discussion, which cannot be said of that other superb performer who chose either to labor in obscure fields or was freer in the expression of his or her views.
Captain Eyer served in seven cruisers, commanding three of them: the USS Thomas S. Gates (CG-51), Shiloh (CG-67), and Chancellorsville (CG-62). He is a frequent contributor to Proceedings.