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When Ellison goes, will he go gracefully?

Alpha Oracle CEO may never be ready to be replaced...

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Comment Graceful CEO exits are rare: the driven man with his hands on the corporate steering wheel finds it hard to sit in a rear seat and let someone else drive. More often they want to be the satnav. As far as they're concerned, it's their way or an abrupt turn onto the highway.

How will Larry Ellison leave Oracle? Will he do a Dan Warmenhoven – NetApp's previous CEO – and quietly go upstairs to chair the board, the route that EMC's Joe Tucci is set to take, with the picked successor slipping into the CEO suit after being groomed for a year or two?

Will he go with no grace at all and resign with reservations, regret or even rancour, having outlived his usefulness as far as board and investors are concerned? The recent Apotheker and Bartz exits spring to mind.

Larry Ellison is one of the top three IT CEOs, alongside Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, in terms of his ability to grow his company, shape the industry, and set the agenda in his company's IT sphere.

He has been able to do this because he is an alpha male in the classic popular sense and an extremely shrewd observer of events and trends. What sets him, and people like him, apart is the ability to look at the white, grey and black continuum of events and trends and extract far more white and black from them than the rest of us.

Where you and I see confusing and conflicting shades of grey in events and trends, Ellison works out the underlying simplicities and turns things into black and white, a clear vision that he articulates for Oracle and his customers and which he persuades the industry as a whole to adopt. His ability to react and change course is also good: look at the near-derision with which he first viewed cloud computing compared to his support for the idea now, and his realisation that he can sell Oracle services via the cloud.

What his ability to see through the fog to the underlying certainties gives him is the ability to spot flaws more quickly than others. He is also, it appears, sensitive to others wanting to have more responsibility on the Oracle quarterdeck. There is one captain of the Oracle ship and that captain is not going to cede any responsibility to his COO – witness the clipping of Ray Lane. Ellison seems to persistently see off ambitious people as they rise to the top of their particular trees in Oracle. The list of high-level Oracle execs who have been forced out or who have seen no scope for further advancement in Oracle is legion.

How long will Mark Hurd last as an Oracle president? Will his tennis buddy relationship with Ellison insulate him from any perception that he has become an unwanted and resented presence?

In the wider IT world Ellison is admired with awe but he is also resented. There is little respect shown by Ellison to his peers. He does not appear to actually see IBM's Sam Palmisano, HP's Meg Whitman, Microsoft's Ballmer or Salesforce.com's Marc Benioff as his peers. The only CEO he seems to shows respect to is Steve Jobs.

Ellison is a strong leader: he both personifies and defines Oracle. He will go when age weakens his abilities, or if Oracle's financial results are poor or through some other failing – but there seems little likelihood of that. He may go if Oracle's customers stop buying Oracle products and services, but there seems no sign of that.

It's easy to say there isn't a graceful exit coming because he has no CEO succession scheme. Potential successors, such as Gary Bloom (Veritas) and Benioff, have already walked the plank. The only viable successor CEO in Oracle's exec ranks is Mark Hurd. Oh, is that the plan?

Ellison is an enigma, a puzzle wrapped in uncertainty, tied with confusion, and approached with trepidation. He is, we think, happy to be seen in this way, as a divisive, dominant and potent force. Perhaps he wants to orchestrate his exit and go out with a big bang, slamming the CEO's exit door shut with amazing firmness, leaving us taken aback once again at his macho charisma.

Does Ellison want to buy HP, and give it and Oracle to Hurd? What an excruciatingly enjoyable prospect that would be. If he did exactly this, and then sailed off into the sunset, that would be one of the greatest CEO exits of all time. ®

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