A couple of Winter Camps ago, the Shihan-Dai (4th degree blackbelt) line was organizing itself. In the line (from left to right) was Mr. McInnish, Ms. Brinkley, myself, and Mr. Wheeles. Mr. McCullars got there after we had organized ourselves and got into the line at the far right. Each of us already in line continued to shuffle him to the left until he was in his rank-appropriate place at the head of the Shihan-Dai line. In this anecdote, two good, important things happened.
The first good thing that happened is that a late-comer placed himself at the ‘end’ or right hand side of the line. Mr. McCullars didn’t just appear at the left hand side and ask us all to move down, although he very well could have, as the highest-ranked in the line. We were already lined up, so he went on to the end. He was showing respect and modesty.
The second good thing that happened is that everyone else in the line identified a problem with our order and corrected it. We were showing respect and attentiveness.
When you line up, the first criterion is by rank, then by test date, then by age. Unless you are very confident that you are the highest ranked student in a line at an event, you should not head directly to the front of that line. For example, I know that Ms. Brinkley is the only active Shihan-Dai who outranks me at the time of this writing. If she is not at an event, I know I should be at the front of the Shihan-Dai line. When I was a Nidan, I would usually mill around near the middle of the Yudansha line. I would never place myself at the front of the line, and actually was only at the front of the line once- when bowing in for my Sandan test.
When in doubt, you should not place yourself at the front of the line. If you know there are students present who outrank you, you should move them to your left. The first time I met Mr. Trawick, I didn’t know when he had earned his Yondan, so deferred to him as probably being senior to me- I moved him to my left. If you aren’t certain you are the highest-ranked student present, you should probably not be at the head of a line. When in doubt, you could ask those around you. My solution was to just put myself in the middle of the line when I was Yudansha and Sempai.
You should always be showing respect, modesty, and attentiveness. If your goal is to make it to the front of the line, your plan should not be “get there first, and quickly run to where the line will form.” Your plan should be, “I will continue to train until I know there are no students to my left.”