When I resigned from the KGB in 1988 (one of my proudest achievements), I really had no idea what kind of an organization I had served. Agents like me were deliberately kept in the dark, so the “need to know” principle of management was driven to extremes.
A year later, the Berlin Wall came down. This event took me totally by surprise and thus awakened my curiosity. With the internet becoming a treasure trove of information, I was slowly able to piece together a realistic picture, and when The Mitrokhin Archive was published in 1999, many of the missing puzzle pieces fell into place. Mitrokhin was an archivist at KGB headquarters, and the book is based on copies of several thousand original documents he made and took to the West.
Profile of a Spy
One surprising fact in Mitrokhin’s book was that in the late 70s and early 80s, the KGB trained and deployed in the United States just nine others like me to live undercover as “Americans.” Only nine? What made them pick us? In what way were we “special?”
I found the answers in two interviews given by Vladimir Semichastny, head of the KGB from 1961 to 1967, and by Vadim Kirpichenko, Deputy Chief of Directorate S (The Illegals Directorate) from 1979 to 1991 -which effectively made Mr. Kirpichenko my boss whom I never met.
The profile that emerged contained the following prominent character traits:
- Quickness of intellect
- High erudition
- Strong will
- Ability to forecast various situations
- Hardiness to stress
- Good adaptation to completely new conditions in life
- Ability to make a living in multiple fields
Based on my own experience, I would add the following:
- Iron-clad discipline
- Emotional stability
- Well-controlled inclination to adventure
Almost everybody will be able to put a check mark next to one or more of the items listed above. Apparently though, the combination of all of them was (is) hard to find. How else can one interpret the fact that KGB recruiters selected, analyzed, and rejected thousands of seemingly suitable candidates over many years? In the end, there were ten of us left standing.
The Mixed Blessing of Being a Talented Spy
I would like to point out that this character profile does not make the ones it fits better than or superior to the rest of the world, it just makes us…different. Depending on the situation, any and all of these individual traits can be beneficial or detrimental to the person who is displaying them. Just one example here to make the point. For a long time, I used to think that smarts (i.e. quickness of intellect) was the primary – if not only – predictor for success in life. So why did I fail in certain situations? Why did others who did not possess a quick intellect comparable to mine succeed?
I spent 31 years in corporate America: eight different companies, four different industries, and eleven different positions from junior programmer all the way up to chief information officer. Curiously, I was never very deliberate in my career aspirations. I just wanted to do a good job, and so I did not pay attention to strengths and weaknesses. I did not understand that the reasons for my failures were not to be found in others – but in myself – and that they lay within the realm of the above listed character traits. Only after I left my last job in a corporation, and while writing my memoir, did I reflect back and analyze the whats, whys, and hows of my see-saw career.
This post will be followed by a series of others that will focus on each of my identified character traits individually. I am planning to give one or two examples for how that particular trait played an important role in specific situations during my espionage career. I will then extend the analysis by citing examples of how that trait worked well – or did not work so well – in a corporate environment. Lastly, the insights I gained examining my own life are a good starting point to lay out some more general ideas concerning the traits and behaviors necessary for success in the corporate world.
Not all of my insights will apply to everyone, and most of them may come in various shades of gray rather than in black and white. It will always be up to the discerning reader to filter my ideas based on their own unique situation.