These traits made Steve Jobs a smart leader, according to his right-hand man

Ken Segall is a creative director who has a long history with Apple and NeXT. This is an excerpt from his book “Think Simple,” which is out June 7.

Leading Apple’s retail group from its inception through more than three hundred Apple Store openings, Ron Johnson logged countless hours of quality time with Steve Jobs.

Ron observed that Steve had certain traits that automatically put him on a different plane from many business leaders.

First and foremost, Steve knew things — and he also knew that he didn’t know everything.

Having grown up in the industry, he gained the strength of experience at a very young age.

But for any challenge he had to face, and for whatever advice he might need, all he had to do was pick up the phone. He could tap the brains of the smartest people on earth. Says Ron:

When Steve wanted to get into retail, he could talk to Mickey Drexler.* If he wanted to talk to a great architect, he could call a leader at LVMH.† If someone says Steve Jobs is on the line, who wouldn’t take the call? Steve had incredible impact and influence, along with the wisdom that can only be gained over time.

Few people have this advantage. Bill Gates had it. Some of today’s other young leaders will have it. But it’s rare to find that kind of experience in someone so young.

Of course, every public company has a board of directors, and the purpose of a board is to provide the company with sage advice from experts across a range of disciplines. But Steve’s ability to reach out to just about anyone on the planet proved to be a tremendous advantage in the innovation business.

The depth of Steve’s experience also helped him understand the limits of his own capabilities, according to Ron:

I think Steve learned over time that he had to surround himself with people who could help create the culture he desired, because he didn’t necessarily have the day-to-day skills to do it himself.

Former Apple marketing leader Steve Wilhite focuses on another trait that made Jobs such an effective leader: He was able to guide the company from a high-altitude perspective one moment and dive deep into tiny details the next. Says Wilhite:

It wasn’t that he was micromanaging. He was showing a genuine level of interest. I’ve worked with iconic and amazing CEOs, but never with anyone who had the breadth of curiosity and inquisitiveness and the enthusiasm for fine detail in virtually every aspect of what we were doing.

Agreed. In my own experience working with Jobs, I never felt micromanaged, nor did our marketing team. We felt we had the attention of a CEO who was eager to share ideas and opinions, and one who was also capable of being swayed by someone else’s passionate argument.

What amazed Wilhite most was Jobs’s eagerness to participate, even though it seemed that he couldn’t possibly have the time to participate as he did. Jobs would spend days and nights with Jony Ive in the design studio working on the physical curves of a product or the tactile quality of a button, things that few CEOs would likely get involved with. Again, he wasn’t dictating to Jony. He was simply eager to participate in debate and development.

Ensuring perfection in every detail was part of Jobs’s passion, Wilhite recalls:

Working with Steve was not an easy task, but it was inspiring. His bandwidth, his ability to grasp different concepts, his passion for delivering an off-the-charts experience — I’ve never experienced anything like that with any other CEO.

This is also consistent with my experience. I often cite stories about times our agency would be preparing print ads and TV commercials. Never once did Steve order me or anyone else at the agency to do one thing or another, creatively speaking.

What he loved to do was express opinions and engage in debate, and those discussions often resulted in a better ad. As the ultimate decision maker, he simply wanted to be involved in the process. Having Steve involved was infinitely simpler than the alternative — working with levels of approvals and opinions from people who might not have the skills to appreciate the big picture.

Email was Steve’s preferred method of staying involved from a distance. His response time, often a matter of minutes, was a constant source of amazement given the number of emails he must have received every day.

And he insisted on handling emails himself, rather than allowing an assistant to judge what was important enough for his attention.

He wouldn’t reply to everyone, but he had a system of sorts. If he felt a customer note merited a response, he would jot off a quick reply.

If he spotted a good idea, he might forward the note to the appropriate person in his world, inside or outside of Apple. (The lawyers beseeched him never to look at unsolicited ideas, in order to avoid legal complications — with only limited success.)

I would sometimes receive forwarded emails from Steve on the topic of advertising, along with a note to the effect of “What do you think of this?”

Or, in the case of someone pointing out that Think different was grammatically incorrect, he might say, “Please respond to this person.” He didn’t expect a follow-up. He just expected it to get done.

Communication, especially the way Steve handled it, is as empowering as it is clarifying — which is why it’s such a helpful tool in the cause of simplification.

That said, leaders who believe in simplicity understand that supporting simplicity is only part of the battle. Leading the charge in defending against complexity is every bit as important.

Reprinted from “Think Simple: How Smart Leaders Defeat Complexity” by Ken Segall with permission of Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Ken Segall, 2016.

* Chairman and CEO of J.Crew and former CEO of the Gap.

† LVMH is a unique company comprised of seventy “houses,” each creating high-quality products in major sectors of the luxury market.

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