In 2009, Barack Obama delivered a graduation speech to Arizona State University inspiring graduates to find and expand their life’s body of work. He emphasised the search never ends but offered a pathway of “[finding] someone to be successful for” as a way to self-motivate and discover oneself. Obama’s advice to those students is equally important to servicemen and women in the military where leaders persistently impact on people’s lives. This article will discuss the notion of a person’s body of work and why self-motivation is necessary if leaders are to make themselves better and improve the conditions of others.

A life’s body of work

Body of work is a phrase commonly used to explain the total output or substantial elements of a project or venture a person or team commits to. However, this explanation does not satisfy the metaphor of Obama’s idea where he intended for an accumulation of knowledge and experience over a lifetime, allowing us to become our better selves. Each of us approach our lives in different ways and as we learn from all of life’s episodes, both successes and failures, a life’s body of work takes shape and matures. Service in the military has two added requirements; namely, live by the values it embraces, and personal sacrifice for others and the nation. Incorporating these expectations with personal desires requires attention for a developing body of work to have relevance. The cohesiveness of lessons takes time and requires reflection on the decisions, actions, outcomes and consequences for a leader to recognise personal development. Accepting this, with the passage of time and myriad of courses, training and experience suggests leaders are more likely to recognise the sum of their work and how it defines them.

So, what work and experiences present the best opportunity for leaders to become better? Katz and Taylor (2008) explore the metaphor of “life is a journey” and describe a linear perspective of life in western cultures. Their research validates the expectation that landmark, transitional events from a start point (birth) through to an end point (death) form a framework where expected and unexpected situations occur but are different for each person. Therefore, each person’s body of work is unique. The metaphor of a life being a journey reminds leaders that their early lives are not their final, “best” selves. Fostering mastery and maturity requires:

  • Experimenting
  • Seeking new opportunities
  • Broadening perspective, and
  • Deepening knowledge.

Linking this idea to Obama’s notion of a body of work symbolises that each of us must be open to learning and developing our improved selves. As the journey metaphor suggests, this does not happen quickly and instead reveals itself as a trajectory over the course of life. Within the military, leaders discover themselves while influencing and impacting the lives of others, which may cause conflict or hardship. This can be reduced when leaders know their people, understand organisational demands, and are willing learners contributing to growth and development.


Militaries provide training institutionally, on the job, and with the expectation of leaders self-developing. This trio of learning requires self-motivation so people can interact with course content, improve mastery by deepening knowledge of associated subjects, and reflect on the meaning of life’s milestones. However, being intrinsically motivated is not something a person can be told to be. Whilst incentives (extrinsic motivation) encourage people to work, generally the effect is not lasting. Authentic self-motivation arises when individuals are competent, work in a supportive environment and feel trusted. Within these conditions, leaders can effectively associate with learning opportunities and life milestones improving infusion into a life’s body of work. Applying this to the military context, self-motivation is essential for leaders to not only be driven for self-improvement but ensuring the improvement contributes to better conditions leaders provide for their people.

Finally, it would be arrogant to detail activities that build a body of work; instead, principles to guide us can be helpful.

  • Have purpose
  • Know your job and role and do it to your best
  • Lead with the best interests of others in mind
  • Set challenging goals
  • Be a lifelong learner of your job and what interests you
  • Reflect on success and failure
  • Accept adversity and fun are part of the journey
  • Seek improvement
  • Be honest with yourself, and
  • Always communicate with others.