The Importance of Leadership and How to Demonstrate Leadership in Your Organisation with ISO

Leadership and the ability to motivate all people within an organisation towards a common goal is an important skill in today’s business world. Without strong leadership qualities, most good businesses will fail. ISO Management System Standards recognise this important characteristic and have adjusted their requirements to ensure leadership is demonstrated.

As an example, in the major revision from ISO 9001:2008 to ISO 9001:2015 the addition of ‘Leadership and Commitment’, replaces ‘Management Commitment’. Clause 5.1 of ISO 9001:2015 requires Top Management to demonstrate both Leadership and Commitment to the quality management system (QMS).

This type of requirement demands that Top Management is actively involved in the operation of the management system, rather than simply ensuring that the required activities occur. This means that Top Management is accountable for the outcomes of the management system. Stressing the importance of management as well as the importance of leadership within an organisation. It is important to note the difference between management and leadership. Management is mostly about processes, while Leadership is mostly about behaviour.

Leadership relies most strongly on less tangible and less measurable things like trust, inspiration, attitude, decision-making, and personal character. These are all necessary to motivate an organisation to achieve its management system objectives.

Download our FREE “Guide for Ensuring Adequate Evidence of Top Management Leadership” to discover a number of ways your organisation can display evidence of Top Management involvement.

Who is referred to when we use the term ‘Top Management’?

Annex SL provides us with the following definition:

“(the) person or group of people who directs and controls an organisation at the highest level.”

In isolation this definition can be misleading. The intent is that those who are at the top of the management structure within the scope of the management system are considered ‘top management’. All Management System Standards require that the scope of the management system is determined and recorded to provide clarity in this matter.

Evidence shows that ISO standards are more likely to be accepted and received if they are embraced by leaders and projected out to the team. Encouraging Top Management to demonstrate strong leadership qualities as well as provide definitive leadership roles.

How is leadership being incorporated into today’s ISO standards?

Along with being a key aspect of ISO 9001:2015, leadership also forms clause 5 of ISO 14001:2015 (‘Leadership’) and ISO 45001:2018 (‘Leadership and worker participation’).

As outlined in Clause 5, Top Management shall demonstrate Leadership with respect to the QMS (Leadership in ISO 9001:2015)/environmental management (Leadership in ISO 14001:2015)/OH&S management system (Leadership in ISO 45001:2018) by:

  • Taking responsibility and accountability for the effectiveness of the adopted management system.
  • Ensuring that the adopted policy and quality objectives are established and are compatible with the context and strategic direction of the organisation.
  • Ensuring the integration of the management system requirements into the organisation’s business processes.
  • Promoting the use of the process approach and risk-based thinking.
  • Ensuring that the resources needed for the management system are available.
  • Communicating the importance of effective management and of conforming to the management system requirements.
  • Ensuring that the adopted management system achieves its intended results.
  • Engaging, directing and supporting persons to contribute to the effectiveness of the management system.
  • Promoting continual improvement.
  • Supporting other relevant leadership roles to demonstrate their leadership qualities as it applies to their areas of responsibility.

ISO 45001:2018 requires additional responsibilities from Top Management, including:

  • Developing, leading and promoting a culture in the organisation that supports the intended outcomes of the OH&S management system.
  • Protecting workers from reprisals when reporting incidents, hazards, risks and opportunities.
  • Ensuring the organisation establishes and implements a process(es) for consultation and participation of workers.
  • Supporting the establishment and functioning of health and safety committees.

In ISO 9001:2015, Top Management must also demonstrate their commitment to customer focus, particularly by fully understanding and monitoring customer requirements and satisfaction. The three main requirements for Leadership regarding customer focus include:

  1. Determine, understand and consistently meet customer and applicable statutory and regulatory requirements.
  2. Determine and address risks and opportunities around product and service conformity and enhancing customer satisfaction.
  3. Maintain focus on enhancing customer satisfaction.

Top Management is also required to assign relevant roles and responsibilities within the organisation, specifically leadership roles that impact the organisation’s ability to meet the requirements of the adopted ISO management system.

Demonstrating leadership with ISO management system standards

Apart from Leadership and Commitment to the adopted Management System Standard (MSS), there are other key areas in the ISO management system standards worth bringing into focus regarding leadership from Top Management.

Context of the organisation

First off is the ISO requirement for alignment between strategy and day-to-day behaviour – i.e. context of the organisation (forming Clause 4 of the above-mentioned ISO management system standards). Before management can demonstrate leadership, they first must have a clear vision of their organisation’s strategic direction, objectives and culture.

Almost every MSS, irrespective of the focus, be it quality, IT security etc., requires that the context of the organisation is established. This includes an understanding of internal and external factors, along with the needs of interested parties. This strategic understanding is used to ‘design’ the approach to managing the related topic, quality, IT security, etc. By capturing this global picture, those involved in devising the strategy are better positioned to guide the organisation in their efforts to achieve the desired outcome. Designing a management system that is suitably adapted for the organisation and not a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

To ensure commitment to a standard, all employees have to be working towards one system and one common goal. Without Top Management setting the scene and clearly communicating their expectations to the others in the organisation, it is all too easy for Top Management to be thinking one thing and the rest of the people in the organisation thinking another. Indicating the importance of management and leadership.

Benefits of meeting this demand

  1. People within the organisation witness Top Management participating in ‘laying the foundations’ of the management system.
  2. The second, and more important benefit, is that the management arrangements that are developed to satisfy the MSS are intentionally aligned with the organisation’s circumstances and strategy.

Management reviews

Another area of focus to highlight is the need to conduct management reviews (i.e. Clause 9.3 in the new High-Level Structure). This review usually takes on the form of a meeting with inputs specified by the ISO MSS. Top Management have to be present but instead of this being a ‘grudge appearance’, if coupled to operational performance, the meeting presents a whole new value proposition.

By getting managers to present the content of the meeting that pertains to their area of responsibility, rather than the Quality Manager presenting on their behalf, the accountability resides in the correct places and the participation creates buy-in and demonstrates commitment.

Risk-based thinking

An important aspect of Management showing commitment and demonstrating Leadership under ISO standards is that they are able to demonstrate ‘Risk-Based Thinking’. This applies to the requirements for planning, review and improvement.

Management must first determine the risks and opportunities in their organisation, analyse and prioritise risks and opportunities, then implement actions to address risk. Finally, they must check the effectiveness of these actions. Risks will be determined by looking at the Context of the Organisation and how they might affect the organisation’s strategic direction.

Understanding what comprises sufficient evidence of Top Management involvement in meeting ISO requirements can often be confusing, our “Guide for Ensuring Adequate Evidence of Top Management Leadership” provides a number of ways organisations can display evidence of Top Management involvement.

Management Audit for Leadership and Commitment

Not only does Top Management have to undertake these activities but they are also audited, and so must provide evidence that they have done so. Business leaders will face scrutiny from within their own organisation through internal audit, as well as from second and third-party auditors.

Evidence of Top Management Leadership and Commitment can include:

  • The conduct of management reviews of the management system. This is a mandatory review conducted according to the requirements of clause 9.3 of the standard;
  • allocation of authority and responsibility relating to the management system, and in particular to process owners. e.g. in letters of appointment, job profiles, procedure documents and performance contracts;
  • development of budgets and related planning that includes matters associated with the related management system, e.g. provision for resource in and allocation of resources to operational activities and areas identified during determination of risk and opportunity.
  • Client communication and negotiation (QMS) throughout the business lifecycle, as appropriate. Including quality related matters at the marketing and sales phases, or when securing the customer’s specifications, or during visits by the customer to the organisation, or as follow-up after sales, etc;
  • presentations to lower levels of management and staff to ensure their understanding, participation and support for the management system;
  • audits as an auditor or at least as an auditee;
  • various types of meetings where topics from the MSS are featured;
  • planning for risk mitigation and resolution of nonconformity and corrective actions.

Top management are therefore at the forefront of reviews and certification audits. They need to demonstrate their knowledge and commitment to auditors, as required. Third-party certification, like those offered by Wynleigh International Certification Services, show that your organisation has met the specific requirements set out in the ISO standards, including Leadership and Commitment. Our audits are customised to your organisation’s specific needs, incorporating feedback from your customers.

We understand the importance of leadership and strategy in an organisation. It is the very reason we apply the Risk Assurance Service that is unique to WICS. Contact WICS for more information on how our services will give you assurance of adequate Leadership from your organisation’s Top Management.

Contact us on +27 (0) 31 941 4790 or by email on

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