The intimidating and empowering line I heard Larry Ellison say most often

Mamei Sun
3 min readJun 29, 2023

Lesson 1 of 11 — Things I Learned in my 11 years at Oracle

“‘I don’t know’ is a perfectly acceptable answer.” In the eight years I spent attending Larry Ellison’s leadership meetings as his Chief of Staff, this is the line I heard him repeat the most.

Often, it came after we’d spent significant time digging into a topic, and the presenter had reached the edge of their expertise, or was posited with a hypothetical that just couldn’t be anticipated. That line always paused the entire room, because it was a reminder that we can’t always know the answer to everything, and we must be given the chance to improve on what we know.

And yet, the first time Larry said it to me when I was lead presenter, it felt like a bit of a stab. I was so well-prepared, I had done so much research, my slides were perfect.

Except, I wasn’t prepared for his always unique pivots, tangents, and orthogonal thinking. He’d often considered the wider implications well beyond the slides. His decades-long success was because he could push those boundaries and edge cases. I would launch into how the new Oracle.com was generating higher quality leads for cloud trials, and suddenly I was estimating the number of bikes produced in Azerbaijan in 2013.

“‘I don’t know’ is a perfectly acceptable answer,” he’d emphasize. Sometimes he’d ask the presenter to make an educated guess. Or he’d surmise what the issue was and there would be animated discussion. Or, he’d ask them to do more research and come back.

Owning an “I don’t know” response is a confident humility that every strong leader should possess. We must be secure enough in our expertise and strengths to admit our ignorance and weaknesses. Expecting to know every answer ahead of time is the opposite of a growth mindset.

There was an intensity to these meetings that was exciting and nerve-wracking. Larry was often optimistic about his punctuality, so you didn’t know when the meeting would really start. He would sometimes launch into a tangent immediately. And he *never* let you present the slides in their intended order. He would pre-read them, and dig straight into the weakest spot (I learned this the hard way).

But, there was also a beauty to the complete and total focus in those meetings. Larry never checked his phone or let outside concerns spoil a good discussion. When he was present, he was fully present. Whether it was the architectural design of a new real estate project or the architecture of a new engineering product, he would be fully engaged from blueprint to launch.

And it is this sanctity of the meeting room that makes “I don’t know” a perfectly acceptable answer. Used sparingly, it shows the right amount of humility, curiosity, and flexibility. And it is essential for being a successful leader, and a successful human.

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In April 2023, I left Oracle after almost 11 years, serving a number of roles including Chief of Staff to Larry Ellison, VP Global Marketing and Brand, VP Product Strategy and Marketing Oracle Health, and Head of Oracle for Startups and Oracle for Research. I’m sharing 11 things I learned over these 11 years in the next 11 weeks here and on LinkedIn, and I hope you’ll join me for this journey.

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Mamei Sun

Trying to understand the world better. Foodie, traveler, techie, baker, pilot, friend, lifelong student. (P.S. it’s pronounced “MAY-me”)