Leadership & Ethics

Leadership lessons observed by a contemporary role model - General Peter Cosgrove AK, MC

By Matt Ryan March 6, 2020

“Leaders can be sacked, made redundant or become a casualty of war but they cannot opt out” according to General Peter Cosgrove (Choahan, 2011). It would be considered the former Governor-General of Australia, General Sir Peter John Cosgrove, AK, MC is a well-recognised leader. He has led a very successful life of service and sacrifice to be a leader that many would like to emulate. This essay will provide some insightful leadership lessons that General Cosgrove has identified through his journey of being a leader at various levels throughout his impeccable military career and then civilian life. Through analysis, it will discuss how the leadership lessons that General Cosgrove adopted and employed throughout his working life will be relevant to individual's personal development as a leader.

The journey begins

General Sir Peter Cosgrove commenced his military career in the Australian Army in 1965 as a graduate of the Royal Military College Duntroon in 1968 (Cosgrove, 2006). Upon graduation, he was commissioned at the rank of Lieutenant. Shortly after graduation, he found himself posted as a Platoon Commander in the 1st Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment. This was General Cosgrove’s first exposure to leadership and subsequently where his journey in leadership begun.

Typically, the predominant style of leadership found in the military is of the authoritative style. This was no exception to the brand new officer that was very shortly departing for Vietnam to lead his platoon of men into battle. In the Armed Forces, this authoritative leadership style was valued as the ultimate pinnacle of leadership. As a Lieutenant in the Army, you are trained to take command of a group of thirty men and woman. You will become responsible for every facet of their soldier’s lives. This leadership style is not just limited to the working environment but how their subordinates fit and act within society. A military leader must work very hard initially to build trust and earn respect. These two vital characteristics will provide confidence to your subordinates and, in return, they will follow your competent leadership into war. On the battlefield is where commands become very instinctive and must be followed in order to save and protect lives and defeat the enemy.  

These two characteristics were evident to the men that LT Cosgrove led into battle against the North Vietnamese Army in 1969 when he made some quick decisions after an ambush where the Australians and allied forces suffered many casualties.  LT Cosgrove led a section of men against an enemy bunker system, which he and his men destroyed, killing the remaining enemy in that location. Subsequently, LT Cosgrove was awarded a Military Cross for his service in Vietnam. Cosgrove (2006) stated that “professionally, this was a significant event”.

Moving up in the ranks

General Cosgrove continued his journey of leadership through the ranks of the Australian Army, before becoming the Chief of Army in 2000. This appointment was soon after his role as the Commander of the International Task Force East Timor (INTERFET) in 1999. Whilst serving in East Timor, Major General Cosgrove was able to demonstrate and role model some further valued leadership characteristics that assisted in building relationships. This gained the respect of the Indonesian Army Generals. These characteristics included strength, determination, intelligence, compassion and humour (Redrup, 2014). 

The characteristics mentioned above work hand in hand together with one of General Cosgrove’s leadership lessons, which is communication. General Cosgrove demonstrated his ability to communicate with people from all walks of life in a tactful but direct manner - a fundamental skill that assisted his success in East Timor.

Redrup (2014) claims that General Cosgrove stated “You need to have an ordinary, but empathetic dialogue with people”. General Cosgrove suggests that so much of leadership is personality based, where people want to know are you a living breathing entity. He understands that leadership has got to be based on emotional intelligence as much as intellectual intelligence these days.

This has highlighted that Daniel Goleman’s emotional intelligence element “Empathy” played a huge part in General Cosgrove’s leadership journey. An example of where empathy was displayed during his time as the commander in East Timor was when he gave the reassurance to the East Timorese people. He reinforced why they were there and told them that the Australian soldiers were not going to allow anything to happen to them.   

Another leadership lesson whilst in East Timor was to practice diplomacy. General Cosgrove’s emotional intelligence was particularly clear in his diplomatic skills. When he first touched down in the capital of East Timor, he disarmed himself and ordered that his colleagues to do the same. This immediately built trust and was a powerful gesture to the Indonesian forces awaiting his arrival. This demonstrated his confidence that their security arrangements were adequate for him and the other Australians coming to help in their country.

Australian of the Year

It was through consistent leadership, combined with his strength, determination, intelligence, compassion and, most of all, humour in overseeing East Timor’s transition to independence, led led to General Cosgrove being awarded the prestigious honour of being named the Australian of Year in 2001. For his leadership in this role he was also promoted to Companion in the Military Division of the Order of Australia.

The very next year, Lieutenant General Cosgrove was promoted to General and became the Chief of the Defence Force. It was evident that General Cosgrove had continued to display some of the best qualities in leadership that has been observed by an Australian Military leader for a long period of time to get him the Australian Armed Force’s top job (White, 2005).

Nobody’s perfect

Redrup (2014) claims that another leadership lesson that General Cosgrove promotes is that nobody is perfect. General Cosgrove suggest that “there are no perfect leaders, but there are people who are perfectly intended” (Redrup, 2014). This means that some people will make mistakes and get things wrong, but others will try to do better the next time that they are placed in such a leadership position. This lesson of General Cosgrove aligns with Bill George’s concept of authentic leadership, allowing people to learn through experience. Nonetheless, a good leader must forgive themselves and get on with the task at hand.

It is fair to say that people being perfectly intended would normally have the right intent but, at times, could possibly provide the incorrect advice, guidance or direction to their team. An example of this may be as simple as having the wrong person for the job. No matter what mistakes occur, when things go wrong a good leader should be able to firstly self-reflect and then, if still required, seek out some constructive feedback from their manager or other colleagues. This will assist and help develop another skill of Bill George’s authentic leadership, being self-awareness. Sometimes we need to engage in a reflective discussion to find and identify ways to improve or become more effective in our selected leadership style.

Take responsibility

“Responsibility, accountability and absolute devotion to your team” (ADFA, 2019). General Cosgrove sees leadership as a sense of ownership. Leadership works very closely with accountability in his eyes. He advocates the fact that leaders should take full responsibility for their subordinates. General Cosgrove suggests that leaders are obligated to know their people, care about them, and look after them day and night. Everyone is accountable for their actions, but leaders should take responsibility for their subordinates. An example of this could either be a subordinate who has an issue or problem, or a subordinate that has created an issue or problem for the organisation. In other words, the buck must stop with someone responsible, rather than having no-one to blame, or allowing things to slip under the carpet for an occurrence or incident.

Similar to communication, responsibility and accountability of a leader can be purely observed in the role as a figure head for the organisation. Often, leaders will receive the accolades and praises where we know that more often than not it is their team’s efforts that have made the success of the organisation. Leaders are often the forefront and do all the talking, where their teams do all the work. A good leader should always ask for their team’s views and opinions where they can to provide their team a sense of ownership. We should understand that leadership and responsibility tends to grow with promotion and remuneration, however the fundamentals of leadership remain the same regardless if you are in the top job or not.

Appointment as Governor-General of Australia

Craven (2014) argues that there is none who will ever be able to say, "What the hell did Peter Cosgrove ever do?" Described as an eminent Australian, General Sir Peter Cosgrove was knighted and appointed as the Governor-General of Australia in 2014. One would assume that this decision would not be made possible without having an exemplary track record in leadership, empathy, professionalism and diplomacy. General Cosgrove holds all these values dear to his heart and is only too happy to share his experiences with others. In 2006, General Cosgrove was appointed to lead the reconstruction of Queensland following Cyclone Larry (Beattie, 2006). He was identified as the ideal person with his proven leadership skills of strength, compassion, charisma and humility.

Having regarded his previous impeccable history - being a decorated officer, a civic hero and an international figure in peacekeeping - there was no surprise that General Cosgrove fitted the criteria of what is expected and, more importantly, what is required for the Governor-General of Australia. Over the years, it would appear that General Cosgrove changed his leadership style in conjunction with the level of leadership he was required to perform and subsequently displayed. It would see that he transitioned from the more authoritative and coaching leadership style and adopted a more casual but effective affiliative and democratic style.

Being a soldier in the Australian Army of twenty-five years, I have had the honour to serve under General Cosgrove and work for him on various operations and tasks. The one characteristic that stands out for me when I think about him is his personality. General Cosgrove has always had a great sense of humour and, along with his emotional intelligence, he has used his humour at the correct time to build esprit de corps amongst his subordinates. More recently, in his role as the Governor-General, I have also observed him review and provide an address at an officer graduation parade at the Royal Military College Duntroon, where he had an audience of up to three-hundred spectators in laughter.

What can be learnt from this role model?

As mentioned earlier, my leadership skills have been built over years in the Australian Army. Potential leaders are identified early and then placed down to attend various courses through their military career that provide the tools required to be leaders in the Army. In saying this, we also know and understand that without exposure, experience or feedback, there is less opportunity to improve our leadership skills.

Selecting General Cosgrove as a role model early in my career has certainly assisted me when leadership guidance was required. I do not know him personally, but have the ability to research the many articles that can be found on open sources as well as referring to his own biography, My Story.

In my current rank as a Warrant Officer, I employ a blend of authoritative and coaching leadership styles. Much like General Cosgrove did, I need to provide direction and command to my subordinates to ensure tasks are executed and carried out correctly and on time. I must also remain approachable and provide coaching and mentoring when required.

Emotional intelligence is certainly required as a leader in the military. As discussed, General Cosgrove demonstrated this on his arrival into East Timor when he disarmed himself and ordered his colleagues to do the same to build trust with the foreign forces. In accordance with Daniel Goleman’s elements of emotional intelligence, I consider self-regulation the biggest challenge in my role. As a Warrant Officer, you must demonstrate trustworthiness and integrity at all times. If you did not have these two characteristics you would not be of that rank nor have the responsibilities associated with position.

I consider the next in line of importance for my role would be the elements of motivation and empathy. In my role as a Warrant Officer, I create and push my subordinates to remain motivated in order to achieve mission success. General Cosgrove did this by his humour and his determination to get things done. I do consider my sense of humour a strength of mine and utilise this by sharing a joke and laugh with my subordinates. This allows them to see that I am a real person, but like them, I have a job to do too. I consider empathy as the next best skill to have in my role. There are always times when things do not go to plan, and there is often an excuse, or reason provided. Good, bad or otherwise, you will need to speak and listen to your subordinates.

General Cosgrove demonstrated his empathy when talking to families that had been devastated in Cyclone Larry. In many cases, this may be as simple as just lending an ear and listening to what people were saying. This skill is very relevant to me in my role, however at my level of leadership I am often asked for a way forward for the individuals. It is with my twenty-five years of experience that I am able to often provide some initial guidance to my subordinates that will assist them in their dilemmas. Good communication skills and empathy is essential for any leader who wishes to understand their subordinates.

The last two elements of emotional intelligence that are most relevant to me are self-awareness and social skills. General Cosgrove was always praised for his self-awareness and social skills, particularly when he became the Chief of Defence Force and subsequently the Governor-General of Australia. In both roles his leadership was at a level where he had to interact with international agencies, governments, parliamentarians and the general public. I would think he must have had a heightened level of self-awareness in anything he had prepared and spoke of in these later roles as his words could have easily been misconstrued and publicly scrutinised, which may have brought the Australian Defence Force and Australia as a country in disrepute.

In my role as a Warrant Officer, I must be cognisant of what I say and how I say it. In my organisation, I do have many junior leaders under my command and must set the standard and be a role model for them. I must have and display the social skills to manage relationships at various levels in Army. This allows for a friendly workplace and provides everyone opportunity to build networks and friendships to enable people to do their jobs as required.

Do I need to be accountable?

General Cosgrove stated that a good leader was to take responsibility for their teams, but everyone must be accountable. In my role as a Warrant Officer, I am looked as the disciplinarian to my subordinates. I am accountable for myself and my actions, but also have a vested interest in the accountability of my subordinates. Should one of my subordinates conduct themselves in a manner that is not in line with Army’s values and beliefs, I am accountable to my Commanding Officer. I am then responsible into identifying why or how this occurrence unfolded. If required, I am then responsible for any follow up actions that arises from this incident to prevent the occurrence from happening again.

My continual leadership learning journey

General Cosgrove stated that even the best leaders make mistakes. He then went on and discussed that there are no perfect leaders, but there are people, who are perfectly intended. The good thing in the military is that we have a very good reporting and appraisal system that is conducted annually. I personally receive honest feedback about my leadership skills, which allows me to improve on particular areas of concern or interest. Without this process, there would be little opportunity to identify my short comings on my own. I am always learning better ways to lead my subordinates and have the maturity to ask my peers about suggestions or ideas that have worked for them. I do consider that a weakness of mine would be self-awareness. I am occasionally known to speak and act at times before I think, and this often will have an unwanted consequence.

On the positive side of self-awareness, I acknowledge that I am doing many things to become a better leader. Most importantly, I consider apart from gaining experience is education. Studying a Bachelor of Organisational Leadership continues to equip me with additional skill sets and tools that I can employ in my workplace. This has been evident particularly in change management. Like most organisations, the Army is constantly changing and looking for new ways of doing business, and it is my task as a Warrant Officer to effectively lead change and demonstrate to my subordinates that change is good and can be a positive experience.


In conclusion, General Sir Peter Cosgrove was promoted through the ranks to arrive at Australia’s top calling, being the Governor-General of Australia. He constantly demonstrated his leadership at the highest order, collecting accolades and military decorations along the way. His strength, determination, emotional intelligence, compassion, charisma and humour were all observed in everything he did. Whether it was on the battlefield, or in an area that had been hit by natural disaster - or even whilst serving as the commander of an international peacekeeping force - he was always seen with his sleeves rolled up and with the world’s eyes focused on his efforts. Above all else, General Cosgrove is someone who has spent most of his working life taking care of others and this to me, demonstrates what humility is.

Through researching and reading General Cosgrove’s autobiography, I have become even more aware and intrigued by this outstanding mentor and role model. Having the privilege to serve our country is one thing, but having a role model who wore the same uniform as me is another. My development as a leader will continue to grow, employing the same characteristics that have been displayed and proven to work. Finally, acknowledging how important honesty and respect is within my authoritative leadership style, allows me to have the emotional intelligence that is also required to lead my team to victory.      


ADFA. (2019). General Sir Peter Cosgrove Leadership Presentation. Retrieved from https://theforge.defence.gov.au/publications/adfa-presentation-2019-gene...

Beattie, P. (2006). GENERAL COSGROVE TO LEAD CYCLONE LARRY TASKFORCE. Retrieved from http://statements.qld.gov.au/Statement/Id/45250

Choahan, N. (2011). Peter Cosgrove talks about leadership at ACU Ballarat. Retrieved from https://www.thecourier.com.au/story/562792/peter-cosgrove-talks-about-le...

Cosgrove, P. (2006). My story. Pymble, N.S.W.: HarperCollinsPublishers.

Craven, G. (2014). The very model of a modern governor-general. Retrieved from https://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-01-29/craven-cosgrove/5225472

Redrup, Y. (2014). Peter Cosgrove announced as next governor-general: Five leadership lessons - SmartCompany. Retrieved from https://www.smartcompany.com.au/people-human-resources/leadership/peter-...

White, H. (2005). Peter Cosgrove will be a hard act to follow. Retrieved 19 August 2019, from https://www.theage.com.au/national/peter-cosgrove-will-be-a-hard-act-to-...



Matt Ryan

Matt Ryan is a Squadron Sergeant Major within the Royal Australian Corps of Transport with experience as an instructor at various training establishments such as the Warrant Officer & NCO Academy and more recently the Royal Military College - Duntroon. He is currently employed as the Squadron Sergeant Major of the Logistic Support Squadron, 1st Aviation Regiment.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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