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Which Books Are Indispensable?

By Matt Collins

Nearly a year after writing a blog post about recommended books for summer reading, I find myself in the unenviable position of having to donate most of my 1,000+ books as I prepare for an international move.

While it’s tough to let go of books I’ve been collecting since childhood, as I sort through the stacks I’ve come to realize that only a small fraction of what I’ve read has made a lasting impact on how I think, behave, and interact with others.

That’s right—there are only a handful of books from my considerable library that I consider to be indispensable.

Matt Collins As a lover of fantasy and sci-fi, some of my indispensables are works of fiction that primarily serve as an entertaining escape into worlds of imagination. But equally important are books that inspire me spiritually, philosophically, professionally, and intellectually.

This has led me to consider the importance of carefully planning how I invest my reading time.

In that spirit, I asked some of my DDI colleagues from around the world to share books that have been indispensable to them. Here’s what they had to say:

Obliquity by John Kay

This book has helped me reconcile my love for the intrinsic practice of my work at DDI with the business of DDI. John Kay is a British economist who thoughtfully dissects the core motivation behind businesses that sustain success and make a real difference in the world (i.e., the type of business that if it did not exist something important would be missing). Kay’s thesis is that leaders succeed through their intrinsic motivation for what they do and why they do it.

This book is also special because it is written by an economist who examines many examples of companies that achieved sustained financial success through leaders who were guided more by the purpose and vision of their organization than cold “outcome” metrics such as shareholder value or textbook strategic planning.

Recommended by Bruce Watt, managing director, DDI Europe

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

If you’re not scared off by big books about basic psychological research, this one is a must-read. Thinking, Fast and Slow reviews decades of ground-breaking work that influenced how we have come to understand human judgment and decision-making processes, and the natural biases that occur as a result. This research forms the foundation for the field of behavioral economics and earned the author and his colleagues a Nobel Prize in Economics.

The book provides an accessible overview of the basic research and common applications to business, and to life in general. I’ve turned to this work at several points during my career and it’s as important and relevant now as it was when I was first introduced to Kahneman’s work in graduate school.

Recommended by Doug Reynolds, chief technology officer

True North: Discover Your Authentic Leadership by Bill George (with Peter Sims)

If one desires to be a great leader, not just a leader, it goes without saying that it will not always be a walk in the park. You are tested on so many levels at pretty much every turn. The experiences shared by Bill George (being a highly experienced executive in his own right, not just an academic) along with the stories of more than 120 other leaders are, in my opinion, truly “leadership lessons” to live by.

Of importance to me, personally, is the concept of defining and then always aiming (at least trying) to stay consistent with your True North: what you are really “all about” on the leadership front (values, beliefs, passions, purpose, etc.). In addition, the balancing act between driving for results whilst never losing sight of the fact you are dealing with human beings and must demonstrate true care and concern is something I see many leaders lose sight of at critical or high-pressure times.

Recommended by David Tessman-Keys, executive vice president

Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds by David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken

Reading this book opened my eyes to who I am and who I could be, and truly embodies my favorite line from my favorite song by the band U2: “We’re one but we’re not the same.”

The book acknowledged the painful emotions of homesickness and rootlessness of growing up in different countries, but also the excitement of immersing oneself in new environments and embracing other cultures. It highlighted the many skills Third Culture Kids (or TCKs) can bring to our communities or corporations—respect, empathy, tolerance, compassion—and it is all the more relevant for today’s leaders as they start or advance the dialogue on diversity and inclusion.

Recommended by Nikki Dy-Liacco, manager, marketing

The Heart Aroused by David Whyte

The Heart Aroused is a poet’s perspective on corporate life. David Whyte takes a compassionate look at the life of work and leadership and uses metaphors and poetry to highlight the nature of the human journey into leadership.

The book does well not to discount the practical necessities involved in leadership and organizational life and, in fact, sees these as a necessary part of a leader’s growth. Nice poems, too.

Recommended by Michael Rafferty, general manager, DDI Australia

Webster's Dictionary

Which Books Are Indispensable?When considering which book has been the most indispensable, by my side the longest, the most read and referenced, it has to be the book I’ve had since I was three years old: my Webster’s Dictionary with Tweety Bird on the cover. My Tweety dictionary taught me to investigate feverishly and observe the world without restraint.

As a researcher, I seek meaning and definition, and I organize my surroundings schematically. Interestingly, growing a formidable word bank prepared me for a career in numbers. Knowing which words to use when describing mathematical outcomes helped me turn data into relatable results and statistics into stories. Having a strong vocabulary taught me to live vivaciously, interpret animatedly, and never lose my childish enthusiasm because an icon nurtured my lexicon.

Recommended by Sarah Mogan, consultant, Center for Analytics and Behavioral Research (CABER)

Talent is Overrated by Geoff Colvin

Human beings all come to work with a set of experiences, skills, and hardwired attributes that serve as major drivers of job performance. But with memorable storytelling and vivid examples, Colvin shows us that those skills and attributes don’t lead to greatness without practice—a lot of practice.

Famous superstars like Jerry Rice, Chris Rock, and many others didn’t succeed because of their raw skills. They worked at it, through the mundane, unrewarding labor of training, rehearsal, and repetition, with no one watching or cheering.

Colvin’s outline of the role of deliberate practice is a timeless and essential point of view that reminds us that mastery lies in everyone, waiting to be unleashed through the power of practice.

Recommended by Matt Paese, vice president, executive solutions

Smarter, Faster, Better by Charles Duhigg

Charles Duhigg is an internationally acclaimed journalist with The New York Times who has a knack of making complex ideas simple through the use of stories, scientific research, and examples. In Smarter, Faster, Better, Duhigg explores several emerging perspectives on what makes people effective and productive in different settings and contexts.

Two chapters I found particularly relevant to today’s rapidly changing business landscape focused on teams and agile leadership. In the chapter on teams, Duhigg leverages research from Google to explore the role that psychological safety plays in effective teams. In his chapter on agile leadership, meanwhile, he concludes that effective agile leadership draws on the principles and practices of empowerment.

This is a great read and the way it is structured allows the reader to easily digest one chapter at time. If you haven’t already, I’d also suggest checking out Duhigg’s earlier book, The Power of Habit.

Recommended by Mark Busine, managing director, DDI Australia

When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi by David Maraniss

Lombardi, the legendary American football coach, remains one of the most quoted (and misquoted) leaders of all time, and his run of championships with the Green Bay Packers in the 1960s stands as a monumental achievement in the years when pro football rose to prominence as America’s most popular sport. Lombardi is a leader worth learning more about.

I read a lot of biographies and find that books about sports figures are often superficial and feel as if they are thrown together quickly, but this one is especially good. Thanks to Maraniss’ thorough research and excellent writing, Lombardi emerges as a complex, flawed, and human figure—like all great leaders.

Recommended by Craig Irons, content manager, DDI marketing

As I transition to my new home I will rely on my trusty Kindle to feed my reading appetite, and some of these books will surely be on the menu. While I will miss the sight of floor to ceiling bookcases filled with every size, shape, and color of reading material, the quality of content in my new, virtual library will surely compensate.

I hope some of these recommendations become indispensable to you, too. Now it’s your turn to tell us: What books can’t you live without? Tweet it to us at @DDIworld and @iammattcollins using the hashtag #indispensablebook

Matt CollinsMatt Collins is a client manager who collaborates with organizations to select, develop, and promote exceptional leaders. As an adventure-seeker, Matt is always eager to tackle new projects at work, as well as new activities outside of work that recently include archery tag and parkour. What should Matt try next? Send your recommendations to

Posted: 13 Jul, 2017,
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