Key Point 2: Leadership

Key Message

Leadership is also a key area to consider within ISO 20121. 


Commitment from top management is vital to ensure sustainability is implemented successfully.  Watch a video from Fiona Pelham, ISO 20121 Chair, who explains in more detail what leadership means.

Note: you can also read a transcript of her video below. 

ISO 20121: Leadership

The second part of ISO 20121 is the leadership section. Now remember with ISO 20121, it’s not a case of doing one section and then the next section in an order - you will find that you are doing different parts of the standard at different times together. So what does the leadership section involve?

There are three parts:

1. Leadership and commitment

2. Policy

3. Roles, responsibility and authority.

Leadership and commitment

This part of the standard is about top management showing their commitment to sustainability. Who are top management? They are the key people who are in the decision position in a business.  This is a way that sustainability becomes integrated in all business decisions. It is important to make sure that there is just not one person who is responsible for sustainability but that the management team understand the important decisions they have to take to support the implementation of sustainability. So, one example of this decision would be to set aside financial resources or training resources. Another example would be that the top management would make sure that the policies created aligned with the future strategic direction of the business. So, it makes sense that the sustainability policy would refer to the future goals the business had on a strategic level.


The policy is going to be the main document that you use to communicate out to show that you are implementing sustainability. The standard gives you a number of things that need to be included in the policy and also a number of ways that the policy should be used. So, for example the policy should include reference to making sure that applicable requirements are considered. So this includes any legal requirements that you may have. Then, when you have your policy, one of the things that the standard requires is that you share it with key stakeholders. For example, interested parties who may be in your supply chain. When you have your policy, you can use this as your key material to put on your website, to email to people, to use in tender documentations, to show your commitment to sustainability.

Roles, responsibilities and authorities

 This section is all about top management making sure that the right roles are assigned to the right people to ensure that sustainability is implemented across the entire business. This part also asks that the people with those roles report back to top management so that top management can be sure that what needs to be done is actually being done. 


Leadership and commitment

Engagement from top management and leaders in your organization is essential in order to ensure that sustainability is given priority and that the necessary resources and support are provided. Top management should set an example by promoting sustainability so that this is seen as important by all members of staff. They are also ultimately responsible for ensuring that the management system is implemented successfully.


Your organization should create a sustainability policy that includes commitments to leadership, sustainable development and the relevant legal and other requirements. It should reflect the purpose of your organization and be communicated to all interested parties.

Organizational roles, responsibilities and authorities

Top management need to make sure that the relevant people within the organization have clear roles and responsibilities for different areas of the management system, including checking that it complies with the requirements of ISO 20121 and reporting on the management system performance.


This presentation explains the areas relating to your leadership in more detail. You can view a summary of the presentation below. 


For change to take place, leadership is required, and this can come from unexpected places. Leadership is not just about managers or CEOs making statements and putting systems in place; people in different roles throughout the organisation also have the potential to be leaders. It is important for top management or those in areas of responsibility to be able to show that they are supportive of sustainability. This does not mean that they will always be the ones leading with the management system, but they may be motivating, giving resource, empowering, encouraging of those people that are doing that role.

Other relevant job roles should also be showing leadership. Some examples of this are:

  • The sustainability champion may do a presentation at monthly team meetings to give sustainability updates
  • From a top management level, CEOs may include sustainability in their annual meeting to show their sustainability commitment

But leadership can come from all areas and other examples may include individuals across the organisation that motivate their colleagues to put their waste paper in the right recycling bin or motivate their peers to get involved in sustainability teams and work in a slightly different way.

The key message here is that ISO 20121 is a key part of business. The concepts to understand when we talk about business here we are referring to what the organisation does in its everyday existence which is key to its survival. A management system is not a bolt on or something that a few people in the business know how to do. A management system is a way of working. The majority of people in your business may not know anything about ISO 20121. But they will know how they are supposed to do their job every day and the processes, procedures and systems they follow and use to do this. A management system is about integrating the steps of the management system into these well know processes and procedures the staff are currently following.

Management commitment

Management commitment is demonstrated in a number of ways including making sure that the management system aligns with the strategic direction of the business. So where is the business focused? And does the content of the management system, its objectives and the issues it is addressing match the focus of the business. This relays back to identifying external issues which may affect your business. Another way in which management commitment is demonstrated is by making sure that management system requirements are included in the organisations way of working. A management system is not a dead document, a word document or an excel document that just sits on somebody desktop. Instead a management system should be integrated into all sorts of existing processes and procedures that are currently within the business. And it should be reviewed weekly, monthly and constantly active.

Management commitment can also be demonstrated by the provision of enough resource to create and make a management system work. This resource could be people, time or training. Commitment can also be shown by supporting continual improvement, so encouraging people on the management system to constantly review what they are doing and work towards their main goals and also by the top management communicating the importance of a good management system. Communication from top management will influence staff behaviour, so that they will start using a management system. Consider a CEO that does not know anything about a management system and gives it no commitment. The team will not be told about this, new processes will not be implemented resources and time and money will not be set-aside.

Then consider a CEO who will support their team to ensure ISO 20121 is implemented. This CEO may not know the details of ISO 20121 but they will provide a team with training resource and time resource. They will encourage their staff members to think about working in new ways which will help this management system. And will continue to ask about the management system progress and continual improvement.

Roles and responsibilities

The key message here is who is doing what? The concepts to understand are the fact that top management are not responsible for taking all actions, they are however, responsible for making sure that delegation has occurred and individuals know what they are responsible for and have been assigned specific actions to take to ensure the success of the management system.

It is very important that responsibility for parts of the management system are clearly communicated within the organisation and the individuals who have been made responsible, understand clearly what they have to do.  There are two key areas of responsibility that are to be delegated by top management. The first is making sure that the event management system meets the requirements of ISO 20121. In other words, making sure that each stage of the standard is implemented as it should be.  The second area of top management to be delegated is to be sure that there is regular reporting of the performance of the event sustainability management system. This reporting should be made to top management and should include ideas on how to improve the system on a year by year or even a month by month basis.

An example of how this may happen: Top management may delegate to the sustainability champion that they are in charge of making sure all of the requirements of the international standard are met. The sustainability champion may then work with a sustainability team to ensure that everything that needs to be is done.  The same sustainability champion may then have a meeting with the sustainability team to get their feedback on the performance of the management system and to take that feedback to top management, along with a number of suggestions of what could be improved.

First, consider if you can find a sustainability champion or create a sustainability team, it may be that you are your company’s sustainability champion. This means that you will be the focal point for any information that is gathered around sustainability and you will be the one speaking to your colleagues and clients about the opportunities that sustainability brings.

Now obviously the sustainability champion cannot do this by themselves. They need a team of people from around the business to represent the different areas of the company they may not be familiar with but they also need top management buy in. Top management buy in is very important for the successful implementation of sustainability.


The key managers and business leaders will be able to give the budget and the time resources across the company which will be required to implement sustainability. It is possible to implement sustainability from a top down approach, where the managers say “this is what we should do”. There is also a bottom up approach where sustainability champions and the sustainability team raise the profile of what sustainability can be done.

The sustainability champion may find they are spending a lot of time raising the profile of sustainability before top management buy into this. Don’t worry about that, it is a common challenge and the good news is that there is a lot of success that results from sustainability champions continuing to raise the profile of the work they are doing.

Creating your sustainability policy

One of the first practical steps that you would do when you start your journey for sustainability is to write a sustainable development policy. A sustainability policy is more than just evidence of what you are doing, it’s a communication tool and its content is very important.

There are certain things which should be in your policy. These include: a commitment to satisfy requirements that are relevant to you, this will include legal requirements, for example, is one of your objectives to measure and monitor waste? If so, what are the relevant legal requirements around that? And in your policy have you stated that you have committed to this?

Also in your policy should be a commitment to continual improvement. Sustainability is never a state that you actually reach, so you should be constantly working towards improving. It is vital that you commit to this, as well as committing to leadership.

Can we all be leaders in sustainability?  The answer is yes, sustainability is about advancing and changing and leadership is about doing something different, which has not been done before and setting an example.

Also within your policy should be a commitment to your sustainable development principles in relation to your event work. Within your policy, consider feedback from your interested parties and your supply chain organisations. Consider also the event management cycle, which you may or may not be involved in. So for example, is this policy for a bidding phase or for the phase for the implementation of the event? Or, you may just have an annual policy which you review every year.

Also consider the needs of the end users. In other words, those people who will be using your policy, reading your policy and trying to take information from it. What are their needs and what do they need to get from the policy? What are the key pieces of information which the policy could include or direct them to? Also consider including in your policy legacy issues. So this means what are the positive impacts of the event which you are involved in and what legacy could occur because of the work you are doing.

Why have a policy? A policy is a good document to share with your interested parties and stakeholders. It is a framework to explain your objectives and explains some of the background to the objectives that you have chosen.  You may also want to include your objectives within the policy. The policy is a good document to include the information in a succinct way so that whoever reads it will understand what your management system is about, what your objectives are about, what issues you have identified that you are addressing and what your future aspirations are. The policy should also match the purpose of the organisation – what does your organisation do and how does it do it? It should be used for internal and external communications. Remember to document how you have decided what will go into your policy.

Communicating and documenting your policy

The policy should be signed off by top management, although it may be written by the sustainability champion. This policy should then be placed somewhere where your stakeholders, for example your clients and your supply chain, can find it. This could be on your website, through your email link, actually physically on the site where you are based, for example within the event. Basically it is important to make sure that your policy is available to anyone who is interested.

It makes sense that your sustainability policy would explain your company’s commitment to sustainability, including your sustainability objectives.  This document can be used as evidence for you to show all of your stakeholders what your approach to sustainability is and to explain your commitment and background to your implementation of ISO 20121.


Case Study

The Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy (WPNSA) showed leadership and reduced utility costs by 15% by implementing ISO 20121. 

WPNSA case study

Sustainability Policy

An example of a sustainability policy from Positive Impact.

Positive Impact sustainability policy


Activity 1

Make time to speak with your organisation's senior management to ensure that they are committed to implementing sustainability. You may wish to use this time to share some of your learnings from the Business Case for Sustainability module. 

Activity 2

Find out who will have the key roles and responsibilities in your organisation around sustainability and your ISO 20121 management system (for example, who is your sustainability champion or who is part of a sustainability team)? 

Katy Carlisle